A refrain from a dance rock song soothes my ears as I regain consciousness. Headache pulses between my temples and all my joints are sore. My left knee hurts. I slide my hand down my leg and touch, through a rip in my jeans, the mushy softness of a wound. My breathing gets faster, as random flashes of myself cycling along an urban roadway blast in my mind like a display of fireworks. No room enough to stretch my limbs. The surface under my body has the roughness of wood. My hands explore a bit further: wood on both sides and above. If I’m in a sort of crate, I think, I may see some light between the boards. I blink a few times: nothing, except the sound of live music. A saxophone interacts with bass and drums. The beauty of the melody scares me. Why am I locked inside this crate and why is a band playing outside my wooden prison cell? A surge of frustration makes me want to scream, but terror forces me to curl up in foetal position ashamed of having no other answer than tears.
One side of the container snaps open under the pressure of an iron lever. As I shake in fear, the beautiful legs of a woman balancing on blue velvet platform shoes appear in front of me. As she bends forward, I gasp. Her face is a Renaissance hymn to perfection. Dropping the crowbar on the floor, she stares at me surprised. I was looking for a load of gin bottles, she says. I half smile and she beckons me with her forefinger. Are you ready for some fun, she says. Why not, I think, but do you have a painkiller? I ask instead. She laughs throwing her head back and shaking up and down her adorable collarbones. My muscles relax. I take a deep breath and close my eyes. She’s too beautiful too be a witch, I think, even though my words sound crazy. Just follow me, she says. I’ll follow you till the end of the world like Dante his Beatrice, I think. But what kind of world is this? I squint my eyes and cup my hand over my forehead.
The place looks like an old barn, rays of light from the openings below the roof cut through the space, illuminating other shipping crates and several tool racks. My Beatrice has reached a big double door to the outside. I drag myself out of my prison cell and manage to stand up. Stings of pain in my knee make me stagger. My head is dizzy and my body aches as if I’ve been kicked down a staircase and beaten up.
Outside the barn, the sun is about to set behind a cluster of lush vegetation. It drops with alien sparkles of orange and blue indigo into the woods. I follow Beatrice, who hops and twirls ahead of me like a woodland nymph. Everybody’s movin’, everybody’s groovin’ baby! Music gets louder and I make out silhouettes of people dancing around a swimming pool.
Getting closer, I realize that all partygoers are young and shamelessly gorgeous. They greet me and pat me on the shoulder. Welcome, one of them says, enjoy yourself. As they laugh I admire their white teeth, their flawless skin, their outrageous hairstyles. I try to fix my hair with my dirty hands and look at my torn clothes. My mind is still confused. Flashes of images keep tormenting me: a modern building with the sign California Institute of Technology, a red bicycle crashing, myself tumbling down. Let’s swim together. Beatrice’s voice shakes my thoughts off. I watch her drop her dress in one move and dive topless in a V-string thong. Come on, she insists as she swims backstroke, don’t be shy. Her protruding breasts spellbind me. Heterosexual adult man, healthy responding to erotic stimuli, I took my shoes off as more images storm into my mind. Again, I see myself cycling along a road. Memories are clearer now: my destination is the Caltech building, but I can’t remember why. Teaching a class, the library, a meeting. Any of these could be the right answer. Someone pushes me from behind, making me wiggle in the air before splashing into the water. While I hold my breath and close my eyes, I think that I don’t have any change of clothes.
Flutter kicking, I swim up to the surface. As my ripping wet shirt and pants cling to my body, I sit on the edge of the pool. I look at Beatrice swimming towards me and I remember why I was cycling to Caltech.
‘I’m a historian,’ I say.
She stares at me, a whimsical expression on her face.
‘An expert on the Middle Ages,’ I add.
‘I’m a beggar,’ she says. ‘We all are.’
Her words confuse me. She looks more like a goddess to me.
The rock band keeps playing 'Dancing in your Head.' It reminds me of a movie I’ve seen.
‘Would anyone just tell me what’s going on?’
A whoosh of air swallows my question. Sky, trees, swimming pool, people and myself collapse, sucked in a whirlpool with an ear-splitting thunder. We’re all drawn inside a rotating tunnel, as if vacuumed by a giant housekeeper in a sort of wormhole. Disoriented, I bump into other bodies. My vision enlarges. I see a black dot move away and then come back towards my face, as if I were split in two. Those before me are fading away; erased from the horizon like pencil sketches on a sheet of paper. My body stretches producing acute spasms that make me cry, while I surrender to the horror of dropping from heaven to hell.
Adrenaline rushes down my spine as I impact against something. My left knee doesn’t respond. The pain is worse than it was in the crate. I scramble around trying to figure where I am. Litter and debris are all over the floor; dust makes me cough. The thunder-like roar at the swimming pool overlaps with a similar sound heard while cycling in Pasadena. They both resemble the shaking of an earthquake. My friend Nick from the Caltech Seismo Lab would agree with me. Nick, where are you? Where am I? In what dimension? My mind feels like a set of jammed gears.
A hand grabs my arm. Wha-d? I try to articulate a longer question but my tongue feels swollen. In the gloom, I make out the figure of a tall teenage girl. Beatrice? She smells like rotten yogurt. Walking makes me feel odd, one leg moves differently from the other, but I follow her.
We emerge from a brick watchtower, set at the end of a huge rectangular field. Cluster pines and ruins stand in front of us. Vehicles speed along the street paved with cobblestones. Haze and pollution affect my breathing. With my nose up I scrutinize the girl next to me. Her hair is matted in a tangled mass of blonde locks down to her waist. She is dirty and barefoot and a greasy raincoat hangs from her shoulders like an upside down garbage sack. Eyes humid with tears, I stare at the tiny blisters on her fingers.
Someone seizes my neck from behind, flapping me like a rag. Hey kid, he says, move your ass and get to the traffic light over there. He kicks me on the butt, and I find myself face to the ground. The palms of my hands burn, scraped from the gravel and my left knee hurts as if thrust by a thousand blades. I raise my eyes to confront the brute, but as I turn around I get another kick, this time on my jaw. A big guy covered in tattoos looks at me with feral eyes. His lips mime a muted insult, as he stamps his boot on my temple. A green neon bolt darts between my eyes; pain invades my head like a vicious army. Feeling too callow to react, I protect my face with my hands and lie on the ground at the mercy of my aggressor.
‘You, little crap, get to the other side of the road and start doing your job,’ he says.
Puzzled and trembling I stand up; not an easy thing to do, because my left leg doesn’t bend. There’s something wrong with my feet too. They are too small for the filthy sneakers I wear. My lower legs look hairless and my skin is blackened with dirt, yet it feels softer. I don’t know why I’m so shabby-looking and I watch my clothes in tatters without recognizing them. The unkempt girl who grabbed my arm is back.
‘Are you okay?’
I babble something.
‘Can’t talk, uh? Stay close to me,’ she says. ‘That’s the Arch of Constantine, have you ever been to Rome before?’ she asks as we cross the street.
I watch her knock on car windows and show her cupped hand to drivers. With a swift glance she encourages me to imitate her. I stretch my skinny arm towards a woman inside a SUV, my palm facing the apathetic sky. She shakes her head, ‘You shouldn’t be here, kid,’ she tells me.
I’m not a kid but a researcher from Caltech, Pasadena, I try to say but, as she raises her power window back up, I stare mesmerized at my reflection on it. She’s right: I do look like a child. Nothing makes sense. Cars are still petrol fuelled and it’s strange even to a medievalist like myself who knows nothing about motors. This cannot be 2029. I beat my fist against my forehead, but there’s no time for fear. The man with tattoos approaches me again. The cobra head glaring between his nipples is creepy. I’m not able to talk; my tongue feels awkward, shorter somehow. I stick three bad-smelling fingers into my mouth to discover that I hold nothing but a stump. Terror possesses me. I’m a child and dumb.
‘Show me how much you’ve got,’ the tattooed man says.
I stretch out my empty hands and shrug, meaning zero-money-made-so-far. He pushes me away, ‘Don’t try to fool me,’ he says, ‘I can beat you real hard.’
‘Leave him alone!’ The girl with dreadlocks comes to rescue me.
Her eyes remind me of my Beatrice-from-the-swimming-pool, even though she looks much younger and miserable. She hugs me; my head rests between her cinnamon-scented armpit and her unripe breast.
‘Just stay near me,’ she says.
Ad rah, it’s all I can gabble with my stumpy tongue.
Cars stop and start at the rhythm of traffic lights, a mechanical tide that regulates the buzz of the city. I emulate her and walk – my cupped hand up – along the left side of most vehicles. Some people give me coins. In their eyes I read embarrassment, disrelish, pity, contrition, sometimes hate. Dragging my leg, I struggle to reach as many cars as I can.
The tattooed man is back with a paunchy guy who looks like the portrait of hypertension. His puffed eyes smirk at us. My friend drops my hand and heads towards the sidewalk.
‘Hey, you, blonde slut,’ the jerk calls, ‘come back here.’
The girl freezes, turns around and moves towards them like a zombie. They reach together the patch of trees behind the old building at the corner of the crossroads. After a few minutes, the jerk pops out from a shrub. He holds some banknotes in one hand, and I try hard to keep disturbing thoughts away. When she comes back, spitting on grass and wiping her lips with the back of her hand, our eyes meet. I sense her pain, but dumb as I am I can only squeeze her hand.
We resume our routine together. The knocking at closed windowpanes, the limping amongst snorting vehicles, the whining chant; or better her chant and my mumbling. Our audience reacts accordingly – sometimes moved, sometimes irritated – we collect coins as well as insults. We don’t give up, holding each other’s hands like brother and sister. If I were stronger, I would have beaten those two monsters up. The jerk and the hypertensive ogre, but somehow I’m just a speechless, crippled boy with no name who begs in the streets of Rome.
Flashbacks are more frequent now. I remember about my teaching job at Caltech as a historian of the Middle Ages, and the earthquake near the university campus. I see myself ride a red bicycle and I hear the rumble and the roar coming from the ground, but I can’t tell how I managed to space-time travel from Pasadena in 2029 to an unidentified paradise full of beautiful people and then to Rome.
‘Someone has given me a sandwich,’ says the girl.
I follow her once more. We sit down on a doorstep near the Circus Maximus. In ancient Roman times, it was a thriving place of religious parades and chariot races, but now it looks like a mangy field good only for walking dogs or jogging. I watch her unwashed hands break the sandwich in two. Whole rye bread with ham and cheese has never looked so mouth-watering. My teeth chew the soft bread, but my mutilated tongue makes every bite difficult to swallow. I can smell the plastic-like cheese, but I taste nothing. Tears pour down my cheeks again as my mind tries to grapple with this state of alteration.
‘We’ll go back. We’ll find a way,’ she says.
At least now I know for sure that she is the woman who freed me from the shipping crate. She is my Beatrice. I wish she could read my mind since talking is too difficult.
‘Scared?’ she pushes back a curl from my forehead. ‘A few days ago we were inside the small tower building in the Circus Maximus where we landed before,’ she says. ‘Everything went black and moments later we found ourselves like beautiful adults, wearing beautiful clothes, dancing around a swimming pool in a beautiful garden.’
I pull one sleeve of her torn raincoat and look at her.
‘You want to know more, uh?’
She lights up a cigarette with a match from an orange box. A puff of smoke invests me. I cough and brush my eyes. I have only read about people smoking, never seen one before. I shake her arm, Hee, I say, moo, moo, meaning, Hey, more, more; but, hell, I’m hopeless without my tongue.
‘The tattooed guy owns us and sends us to beg for money. I’m fifteen and the oldest,’ she spits again onto the pavement. ‘We move from town to town,’ she pauses and flicks her cigarette butt away.
I pull her sleeve again and try to meet her eyes. I want to know more, to understand.
‘Some days ago,’ she says, ‘the tattooed jerk dragged one of the kids, more or less your age, inside the tower. Through a crack we saw him hit the boy, kick him in the chest and groin. Then, the guy drew out a kitchen knife and cut off his tongue.’ She stops, looks into my eyes and asks, ‘Did he cut yours too?’
I shake my head, even though I don’t know what has happened to me.
‘We broke into the room screaming and throwing stones against the asshole. He laughed at us, turned around and crushed the boy’s head under his foot. When I knelt beside him, his eyes were like two smashed tomatoes. He was panting like a fish out of water.’
The last morsel of my sandwich falls onto the ground. As she speaks her eyes are like opaque glass. Her voice is too cold for such a young girl. I’d like to hold her and stroke her hair, to protect her from the horror. But I’m just a little kid who cannot talk.
‘The day after, we improvised a funeral inside the tower basement,’ she says, ‘we brought flowers and spoke our thoughts. It was then that something happened, as soon as I stepped my foot on the exact place where the boy had died, everything seemed to spin, and we were all sucked up, away from here.’ Her eyes sparkle and make me want to rescue her and the other kids. I want to go back to the place where we met. I must think of something before tonight, before he takes us somewhere else.
‘Veadice, I mas go naw, I come blec to rwescu u sunn,’ I said.
Beatrice caresses my head.
‘Let’s go back to the traffic light.’
‘No,’ I say, limping away from her. I may have an idea. Must try to save us.
Roaming amongst tourists, I try to explore the surroundings. People eat pizza and ice cream outside bars. They make me feel hungrier, but I don’t care. I beat my head with both fists, trying to make my brain think faster.
Caltech, I remember that place full of nerds. Crowded with fans of role-playing games and war strategy freaks. I’m from the Humanities. I’ve never hung out with them. I wish I had one of them here with me, even only in virtual mode like in videogames; like Virgil for Dante. A personal Roman guide who materializes at my side: Hey, how are you doing? Click on the right option. What’s the right option? The answer must be inside the tower where our trip ended. Beatrice said they travelled away from there. Once we are all in, we can try to recreate the right circumstances to go back to our paradise. But I must prevent the bad guy from coming after us.
In the Middle Ages, incendiary weapons were of strategic importance for both attackers and defenders. I’ve been reading thousands of pages on medieval warfare for my Ph.D. dissertation, but I can remember only fragments of all those notions.
My mind works in fits and starts.
At a standpipe, I guzzle water from my cupped hand and put my head under the tap to rub away the grease from my hair. My temples pulse, because of the low temperature, but I don’t care. I just go for the pleasure of it, the illusion that water will wash away despair as well. I shake my head like a dog. I need a long-lasting fire, something difficult to extinguish, which resists to water.
A row of dumpsters on a side street attracts my attention. I need something inflammable. Undifferentiated garbage is stuffed inside the bins, in a foolish mix of organic waste, broken objects, empty boxes, and plastic containers. I’ve read about the filth of some cities in books, and now I’m a victim of it. Ignored, exploited, despised. The stench of rancid leftovers makes me reek, but I jump inside the bin and start rummaging through the rubbish. I step on used nappies, empty cans, and greasy newspapers. An actress smiles from a magazine page, regardless of the stains of vegetable soup that crease her evening gown. I spot a worn-out coat drenched with a fruity liquid. One sleeve can be ripped off, tied with a piece of string at the end, and used as a bag. I’ve also found a couple of half-bent spoons and a newspaper with a photo of Barack Obama at the White House. Now I know it must be more or less 2009. Then, I spot a bucket. The rim is broken, but the bottom is undamaged.
I hop away from the first dumpster, trophies in hand. My left leg hurts, but the sight of white polystyrene sheets sticking out from an abandoned dishwasher box makes me forget the pain. I grab some of them. Perfect hydrocarbon. Shivering, I keep limping around, dragging the polystyrene sheets behind me, until I reach a car that seems to have been parked there forever. I hide all my treasures under it, except for the bucket and the sleeve bag.
I should look for Beatrice, but before I need to raise some money. I walk along the main road where tourists indulge themselves in the sun. I torment them with my babblings, playing with their feelings of guilt. Money, c’mon, gimme your money. I begged as if I had known how to for my whole life: the misery, the crippled leg, the mutilation. As I go all the way down with the full repertoire, I remember being on the other side. One day, I gave a fifty-dollar prepaid card to a young woman. She sat cross-legged against the wall of a university building, an empty takeaway box in front of her. Her eyes seemed lost, but when she saw my card fell inside her needy container, her glance enlightened and she looked at me with gratitude. Tears welled up in my eyes. Her glance made me feel useless. I was not able to soothe her pain or give her shelter from the streets. All I could do was to drop a handful of virtual bucks at her feet. I deserved no smiles for it. This time I could do more. I want to do more for my fellow beggars and my Beatrice. I want to take them back to Paradise.
Coins leap into my bucket, but I need a banknote for the self-service gas station. Don’t be mean, I babble, putting on my saddest eyes. When I finally get a pink ten-euro note, I hide it in my shoe and hasten towards the crossroads.
‘Where have you been?’ Beatrice asks before looking open-mouthed at the coins in the bucket. I pour them into the sleeve bag, which I hand over to her. Later, my loot will distract our exploiter for the few minutes we need to disappear.
‘Elp, elp mi! Vi ni galolin…’ I just clutch her hand and hobble away with her. We pass by the bars and the restaurants, bumping into indifferent people. Until we reach an open area with two filling stations. One is a self-service. I set the bucket near one pump and give the ten-euro note to Beatrice.
‘Fas, fas,’ I tell her, as the yellowish liquid fills my pail to its half. I have all I need now to prepare my trap for our nasty slaver.
Beatrice has managed to gather all the kids inside the Torre. They sit down near the place where one of them has been killed. My saturated blend of polystyrene and gasoline has been spread with my half-bent spoons over bricks, wood, and inflammable rubbish placed before the only door to access the tower. Greek fire, a napalm-like weapon. In my dissertation I speculated that the Ancient Romans were the first to use it.
My fellow beggars have helped me without asking questions, a glint of curiosity in their eyes as we all wait naked since our clothes and tatters drenched in water are piled up on the threshold to protect us from the flames. I couldn’t explain to them what I have in mind, but they trust me. They want to. Once the fire is lit, we will step all together onto the spot where our pal died.
The orange matchbox in my hand, I see the tattooed guy walk towards us. At my signal, Beatrice throws the bundle full of coins at his feet. He bends to pick it up and I light the fire.
Flames release black smoke into his eyes. He covers his face with one arm, and tries to stomp out the fire with one foot. The hot tongues move forward, gliding over my sticky handmade gel. As the shoelaces of his sneakers start smoking, he jumps back and forth, cursing at us. I have to refrain myself from wishing him the most terrible of deaths. Wrapped in smoke, we prepare ourselves to get out of this Inferno.
I welcome the pain of being stretched, the impression that everybody ahead of me fades away. I welcome the awkward sensation of looking at myself from behind. I welcome the deafening boom that drives us away. We are back into the wormhole, because this is what we have been through space-time travelling, quantistic zigzagging from one possible world to another. The stretching part in the darkness is over: now I find myself underwater.
In a blue stream, I float. Bubbles from my mouth fly upward. Gasping for air, I roll and kick my feet faster to gain the surface. Cramps in my legs tell me that I'm growing back to my usual height. I won't be a child anymore and I'll be able to speak, because I feel my tongue twirling in my mouth again. As I get closer to the water surface, I make out the trembling shape of a woman standing on the edge of a swimming pool. Beatrice. I emerge and look into her eyes.
‘You’re safe,’ I say.
Beatrice squats down to whisper something in my ear. I kiss her neck, nuzzle it, and taste her skin with the tip of my tongue. Her fragrance of citrus and wild pears inebriates me. All the kids are transformed again in the beautiful men and women I met after Beatrice opened my shipping crate. I don’t know if I would ever go back to Pasadena. I was in an earthquake in California and I found myself in Paradise. I don’t even know whether I’m dead or alive, but I’m in love.