Issue #3: Fiction
After midnight, when the only café insists on closing, they follow the cork-screw street that leads like every other street in the village to the fountain. If they can find the fountain, then, even in this darkness they can find their hotel, which overlooks the fountain, although their room does not. Nonetheless, with the window open they can hear the fountain keeping time through the night, with its plashing, or rather, making time seem inconsequential, at least for as long as their money holds out. Each night they’ve been falling asleep to the echoes of water echoing water. By morning when they wake, the burble of water is no longer audible above the hubbub of the foreign voices rising from a village going about its business.
Of course it is really their own voices that are the foreign ones here where they have no business to be, where they’ve come by accident—another in a succession of accidents between them, but finally an accident in which no one has been hurt. Even their laughter as they tipsily make their way back, almost having to feel along the rough, stone walls of houses in the total darkness of the narrow street, sounds foreign and out of place.
“Shhh,” they shush each other and then laugh. He can hear her laughter rising to the musical pitch of water, echoing off before them down the street.
“Shhh, we have to keep it down,” he says, and they stop and kiss hard as if to seal each other’s lips, and kissing like that they dizzily lose their balance and have to steady themselves against a wall. Her back against the wall, he draws her hips toward him, and their bodies grind together.
“You’re not following your own advice,” she says, her voice sounding winded beside his ear.
“To keep it down,” she whispers, and then bursts into a drunken fit of giggling.
Above the narrow street, the moon is a blank in the sky. When the café sign blinks out behind them, he tells her they’ve just reentered the Dark Ages. In the entire village, only the single streetlight beside the fountain still burns.
Gawking above the ancient square, the streetlight seems a mistake. Given its glare, it is probably a lucky thing that their room doesn’t face the fountain. In the harsh yellow glare, the fountain appears fissured with cracks, crumbling, eroded by its own gush of water. During the day, they’ve noticed workmen patching the cracks and skimming leaves and debris off the surface of the fountain pool with long handled nets that look as if they’d be good for catching butterflies. But at night new leaks spout and puddle the cobblestones so that it looks as if a rainstorm has just swept the square. Tiny tributaries, each with its own current, trace the decline of the street that slopes down towards “the thousand steps.” Step by step, water trickles towards the village on the hillside below, a village that doesn’t have a fountain. Instead of a fountain, that village is famous for the corpse of its patron saint, which, over centuries, has refused to decay. They decided not to stay in the village with the saint.
Tonight, with no one else awake, she slips her sandals off, raises her skirt, and wades into the pool. Spray plasters her blouse against the contours of her body and she opens the buttons until her wet breasts gleam. He watches her standing, her throat arched back, her eyes staring up at the night, and he’s glad they’ve come here away from everyone to whom they’ve become strangers. Maybe they needed to be foreign, he thinks, to find a place they had no place in beyond being strangers. Even now he feels like a stranger to himself, still not sure why he’s needed this woman that he’s given up so much to have.
He watches her and wonders how, come morning, when the village wakes to the greetings of roosters and doves, it would look to find her still standing half bare, waist deep in the dark swirl, her hair drenched with the shower of spray, a strange woman among the familiar nymphs pouring out their bottomless urns, her eyes too much like theirs, intent upon some nameless mystery, daylight white on their graceful limbs, all of them in the fountain standing poised even as the fissured walls give out and a torrent of water floods along the cobblestone street, cascading down the thousand steps like a waterfall, and the men from the town below rush out carrying their incorruptible saint and praying in a foreign language they themselves don’t understand—that no one, perhaps not even God understands—as they ascend the steps, fighting their way upstream with the mindless ardor of spawning salmon.
Stuart Dybek is the author of three books of fiction: I Sailed with Magellan, The Coast of Chicago, and Childhood and Other Neighborhoods. Both I Sailed with Magellan and The Coast of Chicago were New York Times Notable Books, and The Coast of Chicago was a One Book One Chicago selection. Dybek has also published two collections of poetry: Streets in Their Own Ink and Brass Knuckles. His fiction, poetry, and nonfiction have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's, The Atlantic, Poetry, Tin House, and many other magazines, and have been widely anthologized, including work in both Best American Fiction and Best American Poetry. Among Dybek's numerous awards are a MacArthur Prize, the Rea Award "for significant contribution to the short story form," PEN/Malamud Prize "for distinguished achievement in the short story," a Lannan Award, a Whiting Writers Award, an Award from the Academy of Arts and Letters, several O. Henry Prizes, the Nelson Algren Prize, and fellowshipsfrom the NEA and the Guggenheim Foundation. He is a Distinguished Writer in Residence at Northwestern University and a member of the permanent faculty for Western Michigan University's Prague Summer Program.