“Mother.” Harmonia begins. She says the word awkwardly to her mother-in-law as though inexperienced at its use, which she is. “Before I can explain where your son was during his “gap year”, I must tell a tale of his youth. Maybe you can explain parts of it to me.”
Her mother-in-law’s dark eyebrows lift quizzically, while her Aunt Roxanne encourages Harmonia to continue with a silent nod and settles into her seat in anticipation.
“The first thing my husband remembers in life is you putting your wedding ring on a chain around his neck.”
Roxanne almost giggles aloud, thinking of the time they dyed Easter eggs while the kids drank pop. Puck accidently drinks out of one of the mugs with dye. He immediate burst into tears, crying, “I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die.” And then there was the time… but a gentle touch from Maeve cool right hand stills the breath the red head is about to take.
Harmonia continues. “You say, Puck, I can no longer wear this, but your wife will.” The two older women blush with pride at the memory of young Orion (Puck) Sienna Junior with his ornate sparkling ring around his neck. “He is always the captain of his equippiers, of course. Always so straight backed and serious. One day around ten years of age, he leads his brothers Shep and Nom on a fishing trip to the Merse.”
Her mother-in-law and aunt nod knowingly at fond memories of fishing and swimming trips to the green oval pools beneath the overhanging live oak trees in the ox-boughs of the Merse River, And of the family picnics on the short grass above the pebbly gravel bars they enjoy year, after year.
“And one other boy.”
“That would be Agatha and Deuce’s father. The four of them were inseparable.” Her mother-in-law adds quietly. “They use to make a small fire and cook their brown trout for lunch. The boys were out in the sun all summer. They were all blonde back then, even Puck with his black curly hair. They were all tan too, particularly Puck with that coloring he got from his father’s family.”
“According to Puck, returning from the river one day, their path meanders through that perfectly ordered Tuscan countryside dotted with tall cypress trees-“
Roxanne nudges her sister Maeve “Leave to Puck to notice at ten that the landscape is orderly!”
“-they pass through one of those cute little villages in the valley on the day of the Great Fair.” Roxanne and Maeve exchange questioning looks until they realize Puck’s story starts with one of the monthly fairs put on to entertain the tourists. “An aged brega sits alongside the road beneath an orange tree with branches almost as gnarled as the old hag’s dark, wrinkled hands. The afternoon heat settles on to the single lane road as the breeze dies. The boys tuck their shirts into the back of their pants. Puck leads the way, your ruby and diamond wedding ring bounces on his smooth, narrow dark chest. When he tells this story the stone is always the size of a goose egg.”
Harmonia peers at his18-carat ring there on her left hand. All three women laugh aloud. Maeve in amazement shakes her short dark hair in disbelief at her most serious sons telling a tale.
It is Roxanne who says, “Isn’t it amazing how different men act around the women who love them? I always wonder who Puck lets his hair down with.”
“As if he ever has long hair!” his mother blurts out.
Harmonia’s ice blue eyes return to her mother-in-law as she mumbles, “I always wonder about his hair.” Then she continues with the tale. “The witch offers to tell them who they will marry in exchange for the ring on Puck’s chest. He laughs and offers whatever change he and their friend can scrounge together. Apparently, his friend is Deuce and Agatha’s father.” Harmonia pauses here and gathers her thoughts. “Why do Nom and Shep never carry money?”
“They never need money. Puck always handles it for them.”
Harmonia nods her head softly and continues. “She shuffles the cards, mumbling some incantation as she does, asks Puck prying questions, then flips over the five of cups. All the boys stare. Shep even wonders aloud if they know the person. The character on the cards wears a long dark traveling cloak, her dark locks tied down by a pair of braids forming at her brow and running to the back of her head. She stares in the pooling water of a river. The boys recognize it as the Merse. They even recognized the high arc bridge in the scene. But, the woman’s coloring is off. The witch explains the moment in the picture is twilight. The girl’s hair is actually blonde and the cloak pale blue.”
Roxanne jumps back in her chair, her right hand coming to her breast. She looks at Harmonia’s long flaxen hair. “I remember those traveling cloaks you and your great-grandmother always wore!”
Harmonia smiles demurely and continues. “The next card was for Shep, the three of cups; a dancing girl holds each cup.
Roxanne smiles with pride, “My girls.” She murmurs
“Shep likens them to the three Graces in the painting by Rubens. He picks a girl in the card to his liking and gives the witch the nod to continue. She shuffles as she quizzes Nom, then flips over the exact came card. Nom approves of the idea of them marrying sisters, but the crowd who has gathered thinks the crone is ripping the boys off. Their buddy steps up; same routine, the witch hesitates, but flips the card. Again the Graces. The crowd boos her and demands she give the boys their money back. Of course, she was right, but... Instead, she offers to tell their futures. She flips up the Magician for Puck. It is easy for anyone to see he is the leader and will be a leader in his future. Puck points out the infinity symbol like a sideways “8” over his character’s head.
Shep steps up and get the “Strength” card. He points out that Kratos has an infinity sign over her head too. He turns and shares one serious look with Nom. They burst out laughing, take their friend in their arms and say they had heard enough. They run off, yelling for Puck to follow.“
Here Harmonia pauses. Maeve and Roxanne share a nervous glance.
“Puck knows from that moment that the bond his step-brothers share with one another he will never share with them.”
“People use to call them twins! And, yes, they are their father’s son, as Puck is his father’s son.”
No emotion moves Harmonia’s feature during this interlude in her narrative. “So, that brings us to the time he has to go away. He tells of camping out in a distant forest for some time. At night, the great pines creak and sway in the biting wind. The oaks stratch at his tent. His rations run thin now and again-“
“Oh, my poor boy! All alone.” Maeve wails.
Roxanne turns with a broad smile thinking her best friend jokes. Beginning with a jesting tone, she points out. “He wasn’t exactly a boy.” But quickly sees her mistake and softly adds, “He was a grown man dearie.” She pats Maeve’s right hand in a consoling manner.“Plus, he wasn’t exactly alone. Jake was with him.”
“Jake was with him? My 120-pound mongrel? Jake scares off grizzly bears in Alaska. I wish I’d known that!”
“Dearie, “Roxanne reminds here, “I heard you say a hundred times before today, that you didn’t want to know.”
“Oh, you are right!” Maeve admits waving away her worry with a flap of her hand and a smile on her face.
“Plus, either your husband, Shep or Nom spent the night with him when he hid in the our wodded property above Siena.”
“What? My boys were in on it?”
“From the beginning.” Harmonia assures here. “After that they move him to a bed&breakfast along the Merse.
“My boy with strangers.”
“Not really dearie. It was Senora Sumito from il Colombaio. You know her.” Roxanne assures her absently while encouraging Harmonia to continue.
“You knew too! My best friend! Okay, okay I know; I didn’t want to know. Go ahead Harmonia.”
“He was there for a while. There he met his giant. It bursts through the thickly wooded hills overlooking the swimming holes on Merse, pushing up wildly into the sky. Black, gap-toothed and covered in hair. “
“Actually, Puck bursts through a patch of green cat-tails surprising Hank sunning himself beside an opaque pool by the river. I think it was just up from where we usually lay out the picnic. ” Roxanne corrects.
Maeve visibly restrains herself from glancing accusatively at her sister.
“And he’s handsome; nice teeth too as I recall.” Harmonia continues. “Hank is a recently retired footballer, American style. He is “mulatto”, tall, dark, muscular, with startling blue eyes and sun streaked dark curly hair. At that time, he’s old enough to be Puck’s father. Of course, Senora Sumito and her guests notice the similarity between the two men. Although fair-skinned and blessed with his biological father’s regal features, Puck’s negroid features stand out in Hank’s company. “
Harmonia pauses again. She gazes at neither her mother-in-law nor her aunt. Her interlaced fingers lay comfortable in her lap. She sits stiff and erect as usual. “Mother, you know Puck loves your husband. His real father was always so distant. Your husband is the only father he’s ever known. He always felt that “Granddaddy” loved his brothers more than he.”
She reaches out and touches Maeve’s arm in sympathy. Maeve’s dark eyes begin to water. Roxanne’s hand joins theirs.
“Dearie, the truth is the other way around. Shep and Nom love their father to distraction. They have adored him since the moment of their births.” Roxanne whispers as though everyone doesn’t already know that, with Maeve nodding in tearful silence.
“Puck knows that now.” Harmonia assures them as she squeezes Maeve’s pale hand. “But, with Hank’s looks and age he could be Puck’s biological father. And Hank bonds with him instantly. Everyone sees it and encourages it. “ Harmonia send an appreciative glance towards Roxanne. “ They delight in one another’s conversation at il Colombai’s dinner table. They lunch at the “The Drunken Maid”. They soak in the natural thermal baths at Petriolo fed by hot springs trickling down a rock formation, steam rising around them.” Harmonia pauses her tale and turns stiffly to Maeve. “I’ve always thought it fortuitous that you insisted the boys learned English and German along with their native French. But, why Chinese?”
Maeve clears her throat and glances conspiratorially at her sister before replying simple, “We anticipate business opportunities in the rapidly expanding Chinese market.”
Harmonia nods appreciatively and continues, “But, beyond what they say to one another, it is what they don’t say to one another. Puck can’t reveal his real name. Hank doesn’t talk much about his retirement at the top of his game.” Harmonia begins to say more on the topic but instead takes a sip from the bedewed glass of ice tea in front of her.
“Then what happens?”
Harmonia finishes her sip, swallows and says, “They sail off to explore the world. Ends up that in a few days Hank intends to join “The World” in Marseille.”
Maeve’s shoulders relax and a smile comes to her face. Roxanne notices the expression, relief flushes her face and raises the corners or her lips.
“That cruise ship you took to Alaska?” Harmonia asked
“Luxury ocean residence travelling around the world.” Maeve corrects laughingly.
“Only this leg of the cruise intends to visit and dawdle at each of the great beaches of the Ligurian Sea. Granddaddy arranges passage for Puck.”
“My son in one of those tiny rooms, all alone?”
“Well, Donald was with him.” Harmonia confesses
“My husband’s valet was with Puck?”
“Well, dearie, how would it look for a young man to board without a servant. Everyone would think he was a gigolo or a gold digger. Moreover, we took a large suite what with his family coming and going secretly. Plus there was cooking to do and clothes to attend to ”
Maeve’s jaw hangs open. Her black eyes swell with surprise. “And why didn’t I notice Donald absence? Why didn’t any of my friends on “The World” recognize Puck?”
“You don’t remember Donald's absence because you are distraught over Puck’s disappearance. And no one recognizes Puck with red hair and green contact lens.” Roxanne explains cupping her own hair. It’s more coppery than usual due to the summer sun.
“Still the crowd on “The World” is older than Puck and probably this Hank.”
“Yes, but their daughters aren’t.” replies Roxane with a knowing arch of her right eyebrow. Her face flushes again as she learily turns to see Harmonia’s reaction.
Harmonia sits up right and calm as always. “And the girls particularly in their ports of call are all over Puck and Hank. With Hank’s fame as a footballer and notoriety over his sudden departure from the National Football League and our family connections the two men get invited to all the best homes, wildest parties and always have the best seats in the house. The World stops at discrete Nikki Beach in St. Tropez, arrives in Cannes for the latter part of the festival, ties up outside the artificial breakwaters of Antibes to visit the silky sandy beaches, and enjoyable old town, allows the passengers time to enjoy the nightlife of Nice, makes the Grand Prix in Monaco-“
“That’s who I got an invitation to the palace?” Maeve gasps
Nodding Harmonia continues, “And finally The World sails the Riviera di Ponente to Genoa. Everywhere they go Hank clears the way with a woman on each arm. Puck likewise accessorized. Hank is known as a bit of a playboy; a millionare athelete with no family connections. Hank thoroughly enjoys himself with the ladies, but Puck never avails himself of his opportunities. When Hank asks why not. Puck tells him of a periodic dream. His future wife appears to him. She appears thin with a feminine frame, with pale complexion, ice blue eyes, long shear blond hair, always calm and always sweet.” She pauses and a little color rises on her modest expression. Maeve and Roxanne sit speechless “He waits for her. Hank seems to take a moment when Puck tells him this story. He seems to recall meeting a girl of that description, recently. He promises to think on it.
Hank rarely sleeps alone, but always breakfasts with Puck. On the odd occasion he sleeps alone, he’d settle for the evening in his room at Puck and Donald’s suite. You know how Donald is; he insisted on doing both men’s laundry, polishing their boots, helping them dress for the evening. One morning Hank arrives for breakfast, and drops a bundle of clothes on his closet floor. The laundry knocks over the walking stick Hank left there the night before. It is a diamond-studded walking stick that causes quiet the stir when the two men would go out. In reaching to pick it up, Hank bangs his head on the door jam, which he has to laugh at. Then lifting the cane he realizes it caught under the French door. He exclaims at the impossibility of it all, manages to get it free only to knock down some clothes hung there. Laughing aloud he hangs them up only to discover he derailed the French doors. Puck and Donald hearing the commotion come to see and find Hank seating on the floor laughing so hard that he is crying and short of breathe. They lift the giant man to his feet and head out for today’s marvelous adventure.
Even with the frenzied fans and chaos of celebrity, the two men grow every closer. Whether crammed into a private box with friends at Cannes or sunning themselves on the sunny beaches of the Côte d'Azur surrounded by bathing beauties they grow closer. Everyone takes them for father and son. His natural reserve and aloofness which Puck inherited from his father fades before the taller man’s charm.
The morning they arrive in Nice; Hank arrives for breakfast to find the ship hairdresser working on Puck. Donald packing. Puck’s naturally black wavy hair returned gray at his temples to make him look more like his biological father. Puck explains he has business to attend to and will rejoin Hank on the imported sands of Monaco. The news so shocks Hank that it takes breath away. Puck doesn’t know what to do. But, he knows who would. In a flash he asks himself the proverbial question “What would Grand-daddy do?” That is what would your husband do, mother? What would your brother-in-law do, Aunt Roxanne? What would his father do? Puck hurries to Hank, hugs him, kisses him and promises to return in a few days.
“That’s clearly one of my nephews!” Touchy-feely Roxanne cheers with a slap of her hand on the table.
All three women smile. Reserve and aloof Maeve pats her sister approvingly on the shoulder.
“While their lips are still close Hank whispers that he doesn’t even know Puck’s real name. So, once his hairdresser departs Puck explains that he is Orion Sienna. Hank seems a little taken back, but the American says the name means nothing to him. Puck explains that his family has him poised to take over the import/export business and that he is meeting with a co-operative of French grape growers in Provence. Hank seems somewhat relieved by his explanation. Donald nudges Puck; he will stay on board and tend to Hank. This seems to relieve the older man’s concerns totally. When they part at the gangway, Hank tells Puck that he remembers meeting Puck’s dream girl in Italy, that she is younger than Puck and that he’s sure he’ll remember where they met.”
Harmonia takes a sip of iced tea again. Roxanne even pours her some more. Maeve and Roxanne then lean in closer.
“This is where Puck meets his one true love.”
“His driver gets lost in the alluring landscape, stunning rock formations and rich colored dazzling soils. Between the rugged hills and mountains, lie deep gorges and fertile valleys filled with carpets of lavender, almond groves and ancient olive trees. You can everywhere smell the aromas of lemon verbena, rosemary, thyme and basil. And on the slopes stand vineyards. They find their way to his host’s property late at night and Puck is shone his room without ceremony.
The morning after his arrival at the vineyard, at the very moment he wakes, his eyes delight at the charming creature who brings him coffee. She was a very young girl, but as well formed as a person of seventeen. The snow of her complexion, her hair as light as sunshine, her blue eyes beaming with light, the innocence he mistakes for serenity, and the prettiest tiny feet, every detail presents the perfect beauty Hank had spoken of the previous morning. Puck looks at her with the greatest pleasure. Her eyes rest upon him as if on an old acquaintance.
She asks how he finds his bed. He says very comfortable and prays to know her name. She is Lucy, his host’s daughter. She has neither brothers nor sisters, and is fourteen years old.
He sits up in his bed and she helps put on his robe, saying a hundred things, which he does not understand. He still sips his coffee, when Lucy's parents come into his room.. The moment she leaves her father and mother begin to praise their daughter as their only child, darling pet, the hope of our old age. She loves and obeys them and fears God; and has but one fault. She is too young. Puck assures them it is a charming fault which time will mend. Puck ascertains that they are living specimens of; honesty, truth, homely virtues, and real happiness. Just people we enjoy doing business with. Lucy returns gay as a lark, prettily dressed and her hair done in her own peculiar way . Not in twin braids tied back. She gives a hearty kisses to both her parents, and sits on her father knees. When the honest family leaves his room, Puck dresses and goes to breakfast with his host to meet the other growers. The day passes off very pleasantly, as is generally the case in the country, when amongst agreeable people.
The next morning, the conversation Puck and Lucy share proves without the shadow of a doubt that her parents had every reason to idolize her. Her vivacity, her eager curiosity, and the bashful blushes, which spread over her face whenever her jesting remarks causes him to laugh, everything, in fact, convinces Puck that she is the angel destined to be his wife. He even laughs when she comments how youthful he looks for a man with gray hair, probably old enough to be her grandfather. As he enjoys her conversation, he tells her that she would afford him great pleasure if she could come earlier in the morning, and even wake him up if he happened to be asleep, adding that the less he slept the better he felt in health.”
Maeve and Roxanne swap worried glances, which Harmonia dispels with a wave of her hand.
“That day they meet with the lawyers and make a ceremony of signing the contract. A big dinner follows for all the involved families. Lucy sits as near as ceremony will allow and they talk all through dinner. A small band entertains after dinner and they all dance in the moonlight. Lucy is clearly smitten with a man old enough to be her father. Of course, in truth they are only eight years apart. But, Puck begins to have doubts. Lucy seems stouter than the woman of his dreams, more robust, more outgoing and her hair is coarser.
That night he dreams of his wedding. It is at our family home outside of Siena. The sun fills the cloudless sky with light. His brothers and Uncle Stan hold the staffs of his wedding canopy. Above him and the pastor floats an arbor of grape bearing vines on orange boughs from the orchards. Granddaddy escorts his bride to him.”
Maeve and Roxanne sigh in relief. Harmonia blushes in memory of the day.
“ The society of this angelic child affords Puck the sweetest delight, but she is not the woman he loves. The third day he promises to return during the harvest; their farewell is tender and very sad. In route to Monaco, Puck stops to get his hair re-colored in red. His eyes grow green again. He rejoins Hank on the imported sand on the beach at Monte Carlo. The big man is sunning himself as usual with a bevy of beauties (and Donald) in attendance. He’s made plans for them for the race and for events in the evening. As Donald helps him dress, Puck asks how Hank has been. In his usual simple words, Donald says that Hank’s heart beats more steadily in Puck’s presence. Puck smiles at the poetry in Donald's words forgetting that he’d formerly been an emergency trauma technician. The two men have a wonderful time during the Grand Prix, finally The World lifts anchor for Genoa. “
Another sip of ice tea.
“It is along the Riviera di Ponente that Hank dies.”
“What!” Maeve says with a disbelieving shake of her head.
Roxanne nods her coppery crowned head sadly.
“It was heart failure, a common effect of gigantism.” Harmonia whispers. “Puck wants to fly Hank to his specialists in the United States, but the doctors in Genoa knew the flight would kill him.
Puck never leaves Hank’s side, except when the nurses force him out. Then he waits outside the intensive care unit. His worry and sorry overwhelm Puck, not just for Hank but for Donald too, who’d been left behind on the boat to care for his luggage. Be that as it may he can’t help noticing the Italian family waiting there also, tearfully and prayerfully.
He joins in their prayers. They all console one another. They are an older couple of modest-means and their grown daughter. The man is ex-military, coarse, but kindly. His wife and daughter are witty even in grief and empathetic. This son had gone for a motorcycle ride after a short summer rain. The water lifted all the oil out of the asphalt. He lost control at the first stop sign, laid the bike over on its side and slapped into a passing car. When night falls, knowing that Puck has no place to stay, the gentleman invites Puck to their home. The daughter returns to her own home and husband.
That night alone for one of the few days in his life, a sleepless Puck sits up in bed, head in his hands, in despair. His new friends gave him their son’s room. A quilt of roses lay across his lap. The skirting on the bed pictures two swordsmen fighting in a glade, the one on the left had fallen back and although his opponent lunges, they are too far apart to harm one another. As his sobs ease he hears his host and hostess sobbing. Although Puck poorly understands Italian, he understands that their son will recover; something else worries them.
They leave for the hospital as early as possible planning to grab breakfast there. Puck eats with Hank, though more accurately, Hank watchs Puck eat. The Serrafinis eat in the cafeteria. Puck joined them there when Hank goes for treatments. For the first time, Puck notices how good looking they all are. Sergente Serrafini is a ruggedly handsome man and his womenfolk are beautiful. Their son will recover, but he will never be the good-looking young man they’d always know. They all go in together to visit their loved ones. Puck introduces the Serrafinis to the American football hero. When they all part, Hank with heavy breathe expresses his concern for the lovely family. Money can easily solve the problem. The Serrafini’s can’t reject a dying man’s generosity. Puck explains that Hank is flying in plastic surgeons in from the United States to care for their son. Granddaddy arranges everything.
Even out of intensive care, on-oxygen, sunning himself in the solarium, Hank is in too frail to be removed from the hospital. The appreciative elder Serrafinis take turns visiting with him and Puck. Their daughter stops by each day to see Hank and her brother. Puck isn’t surprised when she doesn’t arrive one day, her brother is out of danger and the surgeons have faith in their abilities to put his face back together again properly. However, her parents worry about her absence. The following day she returns with a black eye. Her father pushes up out his drab green chair, color rushes to his features. His fists clench and he begins to curse his son-in-law in language so loud, dark, and obscene that Puck can’t follow it nor the rapid argument that follows in their native dialect. She returns to her parent’s home that night.
There is more sobbing and arguing in the night. In the morning, Sergente Serrafini explains that he is taking his daughter to her husband’s house to gather some things. Puck accompanies them. The husband makes trouble, but between Sergente Serrafini’s sledge like fists and Pucks training in the martial arts, there is no trouble.
Hank dies that night in Puck’s arms. With his dying breathe he admits all along he’s known Puck’s true love. He explains that he’d collapsed while touring Siena before they met. He’d taken to the hospital. He meets me there when I visiting my great-grandmother. She and Hank were in a ward together. Donald had taken me. We saw Hank there all alone. Donald stops to visit. Apparently, I mention my name, our family business and my distant relations to Orion Sienna. Hank was released from the hospital in Siena on the promise than he’s rest in a nearby bed&breakfast for a week. That’s where Puck and he met, when Hank was recuperating. The rest you know.
By then, word of Hank’s stay at the hospital and death has leaked out. Donald will soon disembark with their luggage. The paparazzi pant and sniff in a frenzy outside the hospital spinning after their tails, trying to discover the name of Hank’s traveling companion. Puck can’t be seen in public with the Serrafinis. “The World” won’t reveal his identity. There is no chance that Puck can attend Hank’s funeral in America without being found out, no chance to travel with his huge body. He leaves Hank’s affairs to Sergente Serrafini to arrange. He arranges things so that the son-in-law won’t be bother any more. He inherits Hank’s fortune. He is the son Hank never had. He assumes Orion Senior’s coloring and indentity again. The father he never had. He slips away, a changed man. A new man coming home to kiss his mother, to hug the father he’s always had, to embrace his new life and to make me his wife.”