Blurb and Chapter 1
The sky was a clear blue after the thunderstorm of the past night with only a few fleecy white clouds in the north and streaks of sulfur-yellow etched on the horizon in the south. The air felt fresh and clean. It promised to be a beautiful early-summer day.
Karla stepped outside and inhaled the sweet scent of the wisteria bush in the courtyard. However, no matter how hard she tried to enjoy the day, she felt out-of-sorts and depressed. Her nightmare, her inability to finish the painting she struggled with, and the unsettling feelings after her near-accident the day before all seemed to have banded together and attacked her, full force, in her sleep.
Painting didn’t help, either. She wanted to go back to her colorful landscapes, drown her dark mood with globs of fiery paints but the newly stretched canvas merely stared back at her. It was glaring in its whiteness, hostile. Finally, Karla gave up trying to work. She would pay a visit to Lena and get some roses for her mother’s grave.
Lena cultivated and sold roses and was known all over the valley and the nearby cities for her beautiful rose fields. She had been one of Karla’s closest friends for many years. Having known her mother well, Lena had often babysat Karla when she was little. Karla had spent the first five years of her life in the Maggia Valley and had moved north to live with her aunt after her mother’s and grandmother’s death. After Karla’s aunt had passed, Lena had encouraged her to move back to the Vallemaggia and had invited her to stay with them until she found a place of her own. Lena and her husband Luigi and their four children had become like a family to her.
On the way to Lena's, Karla passed by the rose fields which were in full bloom, although some damage from the thunderstorm was visible. A few of the bushes had been knocked to the ground and the field was strewn with rose petals, which looked like big confetti. But even so, the flowers were dazzling. Shades of red, from crimson to purple to mauve, different hues of orange, multicolored roses as well as the simple white and yellow ones sparkled in the sun and formed a pleasant contrast to the dark green of the pines in the background and the vineyards on both sides.
Normally, Karla couldn't walk by the rose fields without stopping to admire the abundance of colors. Today, though, she barely glanced at the flowers, although their sweet fragrance was almost overpowering.
Karla found Lena in the large shed next to her home, busy preparing for the upcoming market. She was putting roses on the conveyor belt of a machine that separated the flowers by length, so they could be arranged into bouquets more easily. Lena was a stout motherly woman in her late forties with lively blue eyes and thick brown hair streaked with grey.
“Hi there.” Lena gave Karla a quick smile, then continued to watch the roses glide by. She occasionally picked one up and set it aside, then turned off the machine. “How are you?”
"I don’t know. I got up on the wrong side of the bed.” Karla blinked as the tears rose to her eyes.
"Oh?” Lena peered at her, then took her by the arm. “Come on, the coffee is still fresh. I need a break.”
They went inside and Lena poured them each a cup. She sat down next to Karla and put her arm around her. “So, tell me, what's bugging you?”
The motherly gesture broke the dam that held back Karla’s tears. All the pent-up emotions of the past couple of days flooded her. Lena waited patiently until Karla was able to stop crying. She hugged her and gently patted her back, as if to comfort a child. “What’s the matter, Karla?”
“I just had one of those miserable dreams again and yesterday I almost got run over by a car,” Karla finally managed to say between sobs. She told Lena of her near-accident, her inability to deal with one of her paintings, the nightmare. “It all just brought it back again. I’m lonely; Anna died, I have no family left, and …” She burst into tears again.
“Honey, I know, it’s hard. But why don't you come to us when you feel bad? You know, you always have family here. You're not alone.”
“Thanks, Lena. I know. It’s just one of those days.”
“Talk about family. Have you heard from your father lately?” Lena gently brushed a strand of hair out of Karla’s face.
“Not in while. It’s my turn to write. I just haven’t been up to it. I’ve run out of things to write to him about. Problem is, we haven't seen each other in ten years and you start to lose track.”
“I understand. Perhaps, you should plan a trip to see him.”
“Yeah, I know. I should.” Karla wiped the tears from her face. “I’ve been busy saving my money for painting, but I guess I could stay with his family. He even offered to pay for my plane ticket. It would be great to visit Peru again.” Karla hugged Lena. “Thanks for listening to me. It does make me feel better.” She managed a weak smile and got up. “I actually came down here to get some roses for Mama’s grave.”
“Pick as many as you want. And take one of the vases here.” Lena reached for a vase on the kitchen cabinet and handed it to Karla. “And if you’re up to it, come and help me bake this afternoon. Luigi is with the lambs and the kids are in school. I could use some help. I’m making a few loaves of braided bread. Unless you’ve painting to do?”
“No. Baking sounds wonderful. Just what I need, to get my mind off my problems.”
Karla walked the short distance to the cemetery. The sweet aroma of her bouquet of roses brought a smile to her face. It’s going to be a good day, she tried to convince herself.
The river Maggia on the other side of the street roared with gusto, spilling its waters in swirls and rapids toward Lake Maggiore. The noble chestnut trees in front of the graveyard were in full bloom and their long yellowish catkins exuded a strong pungent scent. Scattered by the wind, the abundant pollen of the male blossoms covered the ground and graves with a film of fine golden dust.
As Karla climbed the few steps to the graveyard, she brushed against an overhanging branch of a wet hazel bush that showered her with a rivulet of water. She spotted two men working on the plot next to her mother’s grave. One of them was in the process of leaving. He loaded a cart with tools and pushed it toward the exit. The man who stayed back was crouching before a freshly planted plot, wiping off what seemed to be a new gravestone. A shock of dark hair hung over his face. When Karla put down the vase with the roses on her mother’s grave, he stood up.
They stared at each other.
“You?” Karla asked.
“Oh, my god, it’s the woman who jumps in front of moving cars.” A sarcastic smile teased his lips as he glared at her with his green cat eyes.
“It’s the maniac who ignores pedestrian zones. What are you doing here?”
“I’m your local stonemason. I put up one of those.” He brushed a strand of hair from his forehead and pointed at the newly planted stone.
The gravestone stood out somewhat from the others. It was made of polished grey-green gneiss. The top edge, however, was left in its original unpolished shape, giving the tombstone an artistic flair. The text was carved in a simple italic font and the only decoration was a bunch of grapes chiseled into the stone.
“That’s beautiful,” Karla said.
“Thanks.” He pointed at the stone on her mother's grave. “Someone close to you?”
“Oh, sorry.” He squinted his eyes and looked at the stone more closely. “That was a long time ago; you must have lost her early.”
“Yes, I was five when she died. A car accident.”
“A car accident? Jesus. Seems to run in the family.”
Karla glared at him. “I don’t think that’s funny at all. You sure have a warped sense of humor.”
“I’m sorry, that was stupid. I didn’t mean it that way. It just struck me as a strange coincidence. I almost ran you over and now … I apologize. And I’m sorry I yelled at you yesterday. I was wrong. I was driving too fast.” He stretched out his arm.
Still angry, Karla hesitated. But seeing his imploring look, she gave in and shook his hand. It was large, but in spite of the rough work his palm felt soft. “It was my fault too. I should've been more careful,” she admitted.
She was struck again by the unusual color of his intense green eyes. They changed from verdigris to shades of blue according to the way the sun touched his face. He was handsome, in a rough kind of way. I’d like to paint him. Realizing she was staring at him, she quickly averted her gaze. A breeze kicked up, buffeting the leaves in the trees and tugging at her hair.
“Look, we started out all wrong. Can we just forget about yesterday? And go out for coffee or a movie or dinner or something? My treat.”
“You sure move fast. Yesterday, you called me an airhead and now you ask me out?”
He gave a guttural laugh. “Well, yesterday was yesterday. I’m glad I didn’t run you over, a beautiful girl like you. By the way, I’m Andreas.”
“So, what do you say?”
“I don’t know. I’m really busy this week. I’m preparing for an arts exhibition on Friday, but if you’re interested, here is an announcement.” Karla pulled a card out of her purse and handed it to him.
“Oh, that’s right; you’re an artist. Great, I love paintings. Had to do quite a bit of drawing as part of my training.” He studied the card that showed a couple of Karla's paintings. “Interesting work.”
Karla liked the sound of his voice, deep and throaty, even a little tender, now that he wasn’t yelling or making sarcastic remarks. “So what do you do aside from making tombstones?”
“All kinds of stone work but also some metal sculptures. I just can't make enough money with that kind of stuff yet. So it’s mainly tombstones for a living. Talk about making a living, I better get back to work. I have to plant a few more of these at another cemetery.” He pointed at the gravestone. “Three people died the same week.”
“Oh? Well, you should be pleased.” Karla chuckled.
He raised an eyebrow. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Good business for you. More tombstones.”
“And I’m supposed to be the one with the warped sense of humor, huh?” He gave a snort and laughed, then picked up the rag with which he had wiped off the gravestone and stuffed it into the back pocket of his tattered jeans. As they walked toward the exit, Karla noticed his beat-up Fiat parked on the other side of the road.
“Okay, see you Friday.” He lightly touched her arm.
Karla nodded. “Drive carefully. Don't run over any pedestrians,” she called after him.
He turned around and opened his mouth to say something, then changed his mind, shook his head and grinned. He waved at her as he got into the car. The engine started right away this time.
Karla looked after him as he drove away. He must have had his muffler fixed.
Lena's rustic kitchen looked like a bakery. The heavy cherry wood table was covered with pans of dough and a thin layer of flour. On the walls hung black iron pots and the typical copper bowls and pots popular in the south of Switzerland. Lena was busy kneading the dough for braided bread.
“It smells delicious.” Karla inhaled the warm yeasty scent.
“Cut yourself some. I made this one earlier.” Lena pointed at one of the finished loaves. “There is butter and jam over there, and I just made fresh coffee.”
“You don’t have to tell me twice.” Karla cut a thick slice of the freshly baked honey-colored loaf. The inside was buttery yellow and soft and Karla gave a sigh of pleasure as she bit into a piece slathered with Lena's homemade blackberry jam. “Heavenly.”
Lena gave her a cursory glance while kneading the dough vigorously, occasionally slapping it onto the table to make it smooth and springy. “You seem to be feeling better.”
“Yeah, I am.” Karla licked a drop of jam from her finger, then put on one of Lena's aprons. She picked up a slab of dough and began to knead it. “Guess what? I ran into the guy who almost hit me with his car yesterday."
“You're kidding? Where?" Lena divided her piece of dough into three equal parts and began to braid them.
“At the cemetery. He was putting up a gravestone. He's a stonemason. His name is Andreas.”
“Andreas O’Reilly?” Lena looked up, then dipped her hands into the flour and continued to pull and punch the dough.
“I don't know his last name. You know him?" Karla stopped kneading and stared at Lena.
“Yes. He made a few gravestones for our cemetery. In fact, he carved my grandmother's stone a couple of years ago. He does beautiful work. So he is the guy who almost hit you? Strange. He doesn’t seem like the careless-driver type.”
“I think we were both at fault. At first, I thought he was a real jerk, but today he seemed more pleasant. What do you know about him?”
“Not that much, just the little bit he told me or I heard about him. Some problems with his family, I don’t know any details. He was raised by his aunt and uncle. He’s quite an accomplished sculptor, considering how young he is. He was hired to put up some stone sculptures in the area.”
“He said he was coming to the opening on Friday. He asked me out,” Karla said.
“You must have made quite an impression on him.” Lena chuckled.
“I don’t know.” Karla stopped kneading again and glanced out the window. “I’ve had more than my share of questionable dates. I’m not too eager to get involved with anybody. I don’t have much luck with men. Anyway, we’ll see if he shows up on Friday.”
“You’re not paying attention, Karla. Come on, let me finish.” Lena smiled and shook her head. She grabbed the hunk of dough that Karla had been working on. “Why don’t you apply the egg wash instead?”
“Sorry, Lena, I’m not much help today.” Karla sighed. She removed the towels from the loaves, which had risen to full size. She gently poked one of the plump, smooth braids with her finger, then picked up a baking brush, dipped it into the mixture of water and egg, and glazed the tops of the breads with even generous strokes.
“Nice job.” Lena pointed at the loaves Karla had just finished. “You definitely have more talent handling a brush than kneading dough.” There was a cracking sound outside. Lena looked up. “Another thunderstorm?”
Karla watched through the window as the wind carried off a small branch of the apple tree behind the house. She felt the familiar pressure in her head. “No, not a thunderstorm. The wind is changing.”