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Into the Dark Soil
from She Receives the Night
by Robert Earle

Angela didn't know anyone was coming, only that Frank was in jail in Buenos Aires, pending extradition to Italy. She hadn't known he would be in Buenos Aires, either. Someone named Phil from the embassy in Rome called her. "But sit tight. We're working this out."

She fixed fruit, bread and tea for breakfast and didn't look for more information on the Internet, not that difficult to resist in her small stuccoed home with its patio, swimming pool, and big garden outside medieval Viterbo. At Wellesley she was a passionate classics major. The opportunity for Frank to have his final tour in Milan and then settle in Viterbo thrilled her. Everything old in her life was new, everything new was old. Her knowledge of Latin and the Romans was old, but coming into direct contact with all that now made it raw and vital.

She was a silver-haired woman of sixty with a nose that bespoke her Italian heritage (her maiden name was Agnelli, like the industrialists) who had lived in eight Spanish-speaking countries and spoke fluent Spanish but poor Italian and could hardly read Latin or Greek anymore. She had two grown daughters in the States and Frank in Buenos Aires and knew that panic was pointless. If she cut and buttered her bread cleanly, likewise her fruit, and let the tea steep and sat on the patio and looked over the flower beds and performed her mental exercises, she could hold onto some of her naturally calm self.

There were two exercises. First, you could half shut your eyes and let the blurriness draw the colors and shapes of what you were looking at into semi-abstract patterns that generated emotional effects you named: "jarring," "consoling," "intriguing," "sumptuous." This led you away from life's problems, and Angela did it for a while. They had found the place, which extended beyond the garden to a crooked stream and then a hillside they didn't cultivate but might at some time. They said yes right away; that was how they beat the Roman money that probably would have outbid them. It still was expensive, but they sold their house in Maryland and rummaged an investment account, and now Angela half focused on the scarf of flowers along the patio wall, the bright slash of lawn interrupted by the turquoise summons of the pool's water and then the garden's rows of Vergilian order. Georgics, that was the word she came up with.

This led her to the second mental exercise, which led to Frank, who was the gardener, and had been when she met him. The exercise was to go back in time and summon the specifics of the past. You could pick an event, buying vegetables from Frank at a roadside stand in South Jersey, for instance. Then you could recall the date by the model year of the car you were driving and you could recall he had the same sly, greedy grin then that he had now, and you were wearing a skirt and a swimsuit under it because you and your friends—two of them, Toni and Mary—would want to go straight to the beach when you got there, just whip off your skirts, grab the towels and trek through the hot grassy dunes that led to the flat plane of the beach and the white froth and green sea water and hazy horizon… and he said, "When you head home, stop again. We sell fresh all summer. You cook?" "Yes, I cook," she said. "Not bad for a girl your age." "My age? I'm eighteen. How old are you?" The sly greedy grin: "Nineteen. Gotcha there." That kind of exchange… fragments, but real… the coconut scent of the suntan lotion… noticing every show-off, flirty boy on the beach but wanting to be with your girlfriends and even as teenagers basing your conversations on memories. So much happened before you were seventeen, eighteen. Unimportant but intimate things, tender things, frightening things, all shared in a kind of rattle of words between dips in the suspect waters of the Atlantic full of seaweed and who knew what else. They did stop again to see this cute, cheery guy and buy vegetables from him. He asked for her phone number, and she said, quite practically, "Look, I live in Morristown. It's a long way from here." "What, you don't think I have a car?" Actually, he didn't. He had a 1957 Chevy pick-up truck, or his family did.

From the patio she saw a car turn onto their drive. It came straight at her for twenty seconds, purling plumes of dust and stopping with a crunch. Then there was a spot of silence while the man inside seemed to be consulting something in his lap. Then he got out and introduced himself, Tim Garner, Frank's lawyer. He wore loose slacks, huraches and a guayabera. He was pleasant, self-confident, and focused on her, not Frank. Are you okay? Do you have access to funds? Has anyone explained the nature of this case to you? How did you manage to make this property so beautiful, so natural? Was Italy always your dream? Friendly, Angela-centered questions, verging on but not quite patronizing. He was being sensitive, she could see that, trying to soothe her before delivering his news.

"It's better I don't go into the details with you, but I expect that the policia di stato will be here shortly. They haven't come already, right?"

"I've only heard from Phil at the embassy. He said everything would be fine."

"You're okay with that?"

 "I'm not okay with any of this, whatever it is."

"Not to worry, totally understandable. Look, they're going to ask you one question, but before that they're going to threaten you with seizing your property and evicting you pending the trial because you're either lying or not cooperating."

"What trial? Aren't you getting him out of Buenos Aires?"

"That's underway. Not going to be a trial. He's a retired agricultural attaché and whatever happened in Milan had highest level approval from the previous Italian government."

Another car turned into Angela's driveway. Four officers of the policia di stato got out and introduced themselves. Two seemed fluent in English, two didn't.

Tim had given her a look of "Here we go" before those introductions and then settled back down and chatted with the English-speakers as she watched from the kitchen, preparing them all tea. There always had been two Franks. When he majored in plant science at Rutgers, she accepted the fact that he would think differently and impenetrably about almost everything. He'd take the material world as the foundation of all things and even go deeper, into the dark soil beneath, whereas she'd see mankind as life's foundation. So, he was obscure to her but she didn't mind, even after he went into the government and became more obscure. That didn't matter because for many years he maintained those greedy, flattering feelings toward her, and these she understood. She had the same feelings toward him: lust, being turned on, wanting more touching, dancing, fucking, drinking, seeing one another at a distance, seeing one another face-to-face, smelling each other, enjoying escaping their families. Her father was in the markets, an executive at a stock brokerage, and he thought farming, which was how he categorized the current and future Frank, was not smart. Frank was strong enough to let him have his fun. And Angela was strong enough to sit with Frank's parents—Alberto and Letitia Locheri—in their Sears house in South Jersey and insist that nothing had no point, including her obsession with Vergil and Catullus and Hesiod. She had begun studying Latin in tenth grade, Greek freshman year in college. The classes were tiny, the instructors sweet zealots. Some sang poems, some chanted. No one else knew what they did in those classrooms, but they knew they were keeping endangered humanity alive, cherishing the same desires and passions and conflicts that had sprung up, season after season, from the times of the gods themselves.

As the decades passed, Frank and Angela's bond drifted from the erotic into the familial—not entirely but substantially. Their parents died, one, two, three, four. Their two girls left home, married, and had children. This was where the house outside Viterbo came in and Angela had found peace there. Initially, while he was establishing the garden (and she was redoing the house and furnishing it) Frank seemed peaceful, too, but then he said there were some lucrative things he could do back in Latin America. The word was "consult." She gave him leave. She'd given him leave the whole time. He did something extra throughout his career as an agricultural attaché; she knew what it was in general but didn't want to know the specifics. Her apparent indifference to Frank often being away puzzled and even irritated other embassy wives. Angela never opened up. Frank was an agricultural attaché; that's what she said no matter who asked. So of course he had projects in the turbulent regions of country after country, connections with legitimate farmers and agribusiness types, and deep insight into the drug and political culture where embassy officers seldom dared to travel. But Frank did, and she knew, because he was so smart, that whatever he was doing, he was doing it expertly. Which was why, no doubt, he found that having retired and established the garden, he had to go back and do some more. Which led to this.

The lead Italian was Captain Franco Di Blasio. He spoke at length, indictment-style. "Mrs. Agnelli, you are married to Mr. Frank Locheri. On April 13 last year, Mr. Locheri and five other men kidnapped an Egyptian Muslim imam named Alim Sa'id from a street in Milan, where he was a legal resident. They flew him to Cairo. In Cairo he was tortured to reveal information about Islamic extremists with whom he allegedly had associations. I do not know what he revealed, but when he returned to Milan last month he brought suit against your husband. He is blind in one eye; he suffers constant pain in his shoulders; and he is undergoing hip and knee replacements. Your husband participated in this criminal affair because he worked for the United States government as an intelligence agent. The United States government says it had the Italian government's agreement. The newly elected Italian government points out the fundamental incapacity of any government to agree to such actions." Captain Di Blasio paused on this point, letting it settle in. "For all these reasons, we have asked Interpol to detain your husband in Buenos Aires. From there he will return to Italy for trial. I come to ask you only one question. Your truthful answer to that question will weigh in the Italian government's decision as to whether this property should be seized pending resolution of Mr. Locheri's trial. If it is seized, you will be expelled from Italy."

The precision with which Captain Di Blasio spoke revealed nothing about his investment in this case, i.e., whether he was simply carrying out orders or disliked American foreign policy or saw a good chance to advance his career. In a sense he was simply a round-faced fellow with a mole on his left nostril and short arms and short legs who was patrolling the perimeter of whatever was going on. He was not a decision maker. Didn't pretend to be. Ignored the tea Angela made him until he finished speaking and then drank it in one long swallow, so perhaps he was more nervous than he let on, or perhaps not.

For her part, Angela realized she had attitudes of indifference toward the officials of other countries that might once have been justified—they had diplomatic immunity, they lived in official housing, they could always leave a country in twenty-four hours or less (and had once) but she didn't have immunity anymore.
"We own this house, my husband and I both. Whatever you allege has nothing to do with me."

Captain Di Blasio said, "Under these extraordinary circumstances, you might find that is not true."

She looked to Tim, who had made no effort to intervene, and realized that he was the United States government's lawyer, not Frank's and certainly not hers. But at last he said, "The question?"
Captain Di Blasio asked, "Where was Frank Locheri on April 13 of last year, Mrs. Agnelli?"

Angela said, "What is the law in Italy about the privacy privileges of husbands and wives?"

Captain Di Blasio said, "We are not in a court of law. We are conducting an investigation before entering a court of law. If you do not know where Frank Locheri was on April 13 of last year, or if you do, this is fact, not privacy."

"I certainly can tell you Frank didn't work for the United States government on April 13 of last year."

"Are you certain of that?"

Angela realized she couldn't be. She only knew this: "His official retirement and pension began in June of the previous year."

"But he could have been reemployed, could he not?"

"I thought you said you had one question."

"You did say that," Tim now said helpfully.

Captain Di Blasio swallowed. Was that emotion, drawing excess saliva down one's throat? Angela looked at the colleague immediately to his left; this man, with a blade of an aquiline nose, was taking notes. The other two men, she now realized, were bodyguards or flunkies of some other kind. She squinted at the foursome and explored their dark effect; they were like the extended wings of a bat or a dead limb that hadn't yet fallen. Nothing good. In any case they obstructed her view of the flowers, lawn, pool, garden and hillside where she thought they ought to let a local farmer graze his sheep. They'd been asked about that once but declined because Frank had grapes in mind for that hillside, part of his rationale for pursuing the consulting money. Indeed, her impression was that they weren't popular in the neighborhood because Frank did his own gardening and she didn't have a full-time maid. Maybe someone who didn't like them already had said something about April 13, and they were trying to catch her in a lie. Also, they did their shopping in Viterbo proper, not stores speckling the countryside. She treated Viterbo proper as her little Rome. It was a fort to begin with, Castrum Viterbii. Pope Eugene III lived there in 1145. She loved the blue gray Palace of the Popes and the bell tower of St. Lawrence cathedral and the little Gothic church of Santa Maria della Saluta.

"What day of the month was April 13 last year?"

"A Saturday."

Tim leaned forward to whisper: "Do you have any receipts, phone records, photographs, or checks that might link Frank to being here on April 13?"

Angela didn't answer. She thought, first, that no one knew what had happened on a normal day a year ago unless it was a birthday or holiday or anniversary. Then she began to do her second exercise as a remedy. April... April...what was the difference between one day in April and the next? Was Frank even in the country then, bringing back an airplane stub from somewhere? No, that work in Latin America had begun in the summer. She swam alone all summer, or most of it.

Normally she didn't do her second exercise with audiences watching. There they steeped, like tea, the water of time darkening with currents of intertwining events.

Captain Di Blasio said, "Of course, if you do not know, you do not know."

She asked if she could have a moment alone. Captain Di Blasio said that if she meant to go into the house, he would like to accompany her. She had meant to go into the house, but she didn't want him there, so she said, no, she only wanted to step out by the pool.

"It would help."

"How would it help?" Captain Di Blasio asked.

Tim said again, "Isn't Mrs. Agnelli's request reasonable? One question, remember?"

Captain Di Blasio wasn't going to be toyed with. "Yes, but the question hasn't been answered." He gestured toward the pool. "What out there will provide an answer? Isn't the answer more likely in the house, to be preserved or destroyed?"

Angela got up anyway and took the path through the flower beds to the pool. Frank had suggested replacing it; it was an old pool with lots of patching and an antiquated filtration system. Angela had said in response, just the way she would say something, "Now, really, Frank, why would you do that?" She meant change the patina of the entire property. The old house, old walls, old patios and so forth required a complementary old pool with a yellow-tiled Neptune on one side wall eyeing green and blue-tiled mermaids on the other side wall. "Go do your gardening, leave everything else to me."

She realized the five men had trailed her, so she walked further, toward the garden: long rows of tomato plants, the green tops of carrots, spindly pepper plants with tiny peppers forming, spreading eggplant and squash and cucumber vines…

She turned to Di Blasio. "He worked on the garden on Saturdays. That's what he was doing here on April 13 last year."

Captain DiBlasio disagreed. "No, he drove to Milan, donned a balaclava, and joined his old comrades in this illegal activity."

"He was an agricultural attaché, don't be ridiculous."

"Madam, excuse me, we know for a fact what he was. We have a message with his name on it, an advisory to the US intelligence station's counterparts."

"You mean sent to the Italian intelligence agencies? What did they say? Okay?"

"They had no authority to say okay."

"Maybe not, maybe they wouldn't dare, so you must mean higher, someone in Rome. Who? The minister of interior? The minister of justice? The prime minister?"

Captain Di Blasio said sharply, "I am not here to debate. I have asked you a question. You have answered. Now, is there any way you can prove what you say? This is a part of my question, perhaps the decisive part. A person can say anything, but what is the proof? If there is no proof, it is unlikely that you will retain possession of this house, these grounds, and that garden."

At the moment Angela assumed Frank was heading to the US, and she worried that no matter what she said, he might never come back here again, but she didn't want to live in a rented apartment in D. with all their money tied up in Italy. It wasn't the plan. It wasn't what they had fallen in love with. Frank had established the garden and wanted to terrace the hillside and grow grapes there. That was the truth of it. Would they eat the grapes? Some, yes. Preserve the grapes, turn them into jelly? Some, yes. But sell them and eventually figure out how to transform them into wine? If they lived long enough, that would be the "final miracle," as Frank put it, his ultimate transition from truck gardener to vintner. He'd get wine out of the dirt. "Neat trick for a South Jersey boy."

She walked between the tomato plants to get further away from the men trailing her. It was like a chase, but a very little chase. She was prey, they were predators, each a stand-in for something else: she for brutal US government counter-terrorism tactics, they for offended Italian sovereignty. That was it. The new Italian government was trying to undo everything the old government had done because the old government was headed by slime in a suit.

She said April to herself and thought of the weather and continued her second mental exercise. He liked to garden on weekends because throughout their peregrinations weekends had been the only time he'd been able to do so. He'd done it in suburban backyards, on apartment balconies and rooftops, and in communal gardens fringing Bogota and Mexico City. And in April in Viterbo the highs and lows would have been receptive to his rake and trowel and hand cultivator and old leather apron festooned with seed pockets. One morning very, very early, she recalled, she awakened and he wasn't in bed. Where was he? She looked toward the bathroom, no light. She went into the sitting room. No light. She looked out the back window and there in the distance was a bright LED headlamp moving along in the garden. Frank was planting seeds in the pitch dark. Why? Who knew? She went back to bed. When she awoke, he was gone. The note said, "Probably back tonight." That night he returned past her bedtime, but she heard him, got up and looked out the back window. Once again, the LED headlamp shone on the ground where Frank slipped his trowel into the dark soil and slipped in tomato seeds… tomatoes because he was where the tomatoes grew, lots of them, which Angela turned into sauces and soups and juice and canned for the winter and Frank liked to eat fresh off the vine. He'd go out in the garden in August with a salt shaker, pluck a few, bite, salt and bite again. When he was sated he might kneel and press his face into the tomato plants because he loved their smell in the hot sun so much.

So he may or may not have done what they said, and if he did, how could he be so stupid? He was supposed to be out of that. But the imam, if that's what he was, what could she do for him? What did he deserve? Angela had no idea. She saw no justice in any of this—these men, this question, the destruction of her life. When Frank began consulting, she had taken over the gardening. At first she resented it. She preferred cooking and reading and writing letters and swimming and playing with Latin and Greek vocabulary cards and doing all the things necessary to making the household go. It was her home and felt like it always had been. But eventually she came to enjoy the smells of the plants and the earth and the feel of the tools in her hands and the scraping crunch of digging and the magic of the tiny seeds and the way the plants perked up when she watered them, their leaves fattening with life.

She turned to Captain Di Blasio and said, "Follow me." She then led the five men to the patio and told them, "Sit down, gentlemen. I'll only be a minute getting you proof."

She returned with Frank's worn green ledger and paged back through it, certain of what she'd find, none of it involving spying or counter-terrorism. All the entries were dated. Some had to do with too much or too little rain, or pests, or soil conditions, or the growth rates of various vegetables, one kind of squash versus another. He'd measure their length and girth and used his old scale to weigh them. And every time he planted seeds, he made notes. What could be more important than when you planted your seeds?

On April 13 of the previous year the notes read: "Got all the tomato seeds in. Big, big job. Exhausted. Knees ache. 125 plants. Will have to buy more stakes but first want to know how many will have to be thinned so we don't crowd out the Brussels sprouts."

Captain Di Blasio asked if he could take the ledger. Angela pulled it away. This ledger was the most important document in Frank's life, more important than birth, marriage, or death certificates. Whatever he did elsewhere, he did not record or discuss. But he'd pore over this book, writing the main observations in his neat tiny lettering on the right hand page and additional notes on the left hand page. "Thomas Jefferson used to keep a book like this," he once told her. "It's my traveling garden. Some day I'll have a permanent one. This will tell me what to do with it."

Captain Di Blasio pressed her. "We will give you a receipt and possibly return it to you, although I frankly doubt it. Now we have evidence, and evidence is permanent."

Captain Di Blasio's English speaking lieutenant volunteered to photograph it.

"The whole thing?" Angela asked.

"I can do that, too," Tim said, "and I'll definitely get you a copy."

The two men used cell phone cameras to take pictures of the 137 pages that had been used in the 160 page ledger. When they were finished, Captain Di Blasio apologized for taking up so much of her time.

Angela said, "You should apologize. And you should apologize for threatening to seize my home. You're no better than the last government no matter what you may think."

Captain Di Blasio accepted this verbal slap with no comment. He led his men to their cars. They raised a trail of dust on the way out.

Angela said to Tim, "Where is he now?"

Tim looked at his watch. "Miami? Probably spend the night. Then D.C. I can get you a ticket, no problem."
With Captain Di Blasio gone, Angela let herself go, too. She had a sickening intuition that if she left this little place outside Viterbo, she'd never see it again. She knew Frank would promise her something else. Maybe in Colombia, maybe in Guatemala. She could hear him swear he'd find a way to make that happen, but she didn't want it. She wanted to stay in her new old past. It felt right. It felt like her. This, always this to the end.

"No. Just tell him I'm here, or I'll tell him if he calls me before you see him."

"I think you should leave, Angela," Tim said. "Today we won but tomorrow…?"

She didn't have a "tomorrow" exercise, but if she had enough time and peace she would invent one.

"No thanks. I'm staying."

She watched another plume of dust rise behind Tim's departing car. Then she went to the tool shed and got her sun hat, long gloves, and hand cultivator. She'd weed and redirect some rambunctious eggplant and squash vines. As she worked, the sun would warm her like a hand spread across her back, pressing her down face-to-face with the rich dark soil, making her perspire, but that was okay. After she finished, she'd swim.bluestar


Author With more than seventy stories and novellas in print and online literary journals, Robert Earle is one of the more widely published contemporary writers of short fiction. He also is the author of two novels, The Way Home and The Man Clothed in Linen, and a book of non-fiction about Iraq, Nights in the Pink Motel. He recently moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina and has degrees in literature and writing from Princeton and Johns Hopkins. His last three posts in government were as Senior Advisor to the U.S. Ambassador in Iraq, Counselor to the Director of National Intelligence, and Counselor to the Deputy Secretary of State.

 



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