“No, we can’t do it with a military airplane because the commander of the base says he doesn’t want trouble, but I think I found a solution. It’s risky, but so is your situation.”
“Explain it to me.”
It hadn’t been difficult to enter the base; they had recognized him right away. The difficult part was figuring out how to get out. Since his arrival, Terracina had felt more calm. Like an animal hiding in its den, breathing more freely but never forgetting that the enemy is outside, waiting. Old McCain had proven that he was a faithful friend; he had taken him in, heated up a can of Campbell’s soup. As he recounted his adventure, McCain listened with that typically American, simple, concentrated expression, only slightly mitigated by his age and his uniform. Then he gave him his couch to sleep on on, assuring him that by the following day he would find a solution. But Terracina was still nervous and made him promise that he would be able to get on the first plane leaving the base.
McCain looked at his watch, remembered his abandoned pool game, his whisky, and his buddies who were waiting for him, and answered distractedly: “Everything is gonna be fine.”
By the following day, this promise had clashed with the chain of command and protocol, and this “yes” had become “maybe” and then “sorry, no airplane, but I think we’ve figured out something else.” Terracina was starting to feel trapped. “It’s a somewhat . . . complex plan, but it’ll get you there, and that’s the important thing, right?” insisted McCain, almost as if he were testing his friend’s state of mind in order to figure out the best way to present the plan. McCain realized it was crazy, but he couldn’t think of anything better, and Terracina had to leave right away. In part because his presence there could bring problems with the Libyans, and partly because it was turning into a problem for him. “So tell me about it,” Terracina insisted, worn out.
“The music teacher left with the others a while back, but he left the kids’ instruments to be sent by ship. They’re already packed, and tomorrow they’ll put them in a crate on a ship to Malta.”
Terracina stared at him in disbelief, but McCain went on, undaunted.
“You could climb into a cello case. It’s big enough for you. The day after tomorrow you’ll be in Malta and there you can take a plane back to your family in Italy.”
Finally, Terracina burst out: “You’re crazy! How can you even think I could do that?! How would I breathe? And what about at the dock? They check everything, and if they find me in the case they’ll leave me there to rot!”
“You want to leave Tripoli, you don’t have a passport, you don’t have a visa, you’re Jewish . . . how else are you planning to do it? If you don’t feel up to it, don’t do it, but I’m not sure that there will be a better plan. A friend of mine is going to pick up the instruments, and he’s expecting you. He’ll open the case when no one is watching and he’ll give you a fake passport so you can get on a plane. I’ve alerted him. If you don’t want to do it I’ll let him know and we’ll forget all about it.”
McCain was annoyed. He knew that Terracina was in trouble and he realized they had spent many late nights playing cards, but, he thought, he had found a solution, and if his friend didn’t like it he would just have to think of something better. He could figure out his own escape route.
“No, wait.” Terracina thought of his family; he had managed to get them out right away, during the first days of September, before the intoxication of the revolution had risen to everyone’s head. But once his family was gone, he had forgotten about his own safety, thinking only of how lucky he was. Now he had no choice but the cello case, barely large enough to carry him and his fears.
“Can I at least see the case before I decide?”
There were lots of instruments, piled up in a corner of the music room. Mr. Nicholson had done a good job and had managed to create a small orchestra of wind and string instruments. There was even a grand piano.
Terracina stared at the piano, but McCain guessed what he was thinking and cut him off. “It’s long enough, but to fit in there someone would have to take out all of the hammers and strings, and I certainly don’t know how to do it.” Then he pointed to the cello case he had chosen. It stood there, slightly apart from the others, indicating that it had been scrutinized, opened, evaluated. It was slightly roomier than the others, but despite Terracina’s slight frame, he could hardly imagine fitting inside. “Try it out. I couldn’t quite manage it myself,” McCain added, with an apologetic smile, an allusion to his Irish drinker’s girth. His smile was that of someone who is profoundly serene, someone who has the luxury of good humor, and it provoked rage in Terracina, rage against the pilot who did not have to fear for his life, against the Libyans who had reduced him to this, and against himself and his own foolishness. He walked over to the corner in silence, hating the world, picked up the case clumsily and set it down with a bang. The cello inside emitted a pained note and Terracina reflected that soon, he too would feel as unhappy as the instrument. More respectfully, he removed the cello and climbed into the case as it stood upright, causing it to creak and rock back and forth. He removed his shoes and and drew himself in, putting his feet in the spot where the handle was. Then he realized that if someone tried to carry the cello by the handle he would be upside down. He got up, ran his forearm across his forehead to wipe off the sweat running down into his eyes, and, as he tried to wipe off his glasses, said, “OK, but I need to drill some airholes or else I’ll suffocate.” Then he looked into the eyes of his old friend. Suddenly he seemed very far away; this was the distance between two people who were about to take two very different paths, one very dangerous. Terracina did not want to think about exactly how dangerous it was, and asked simply, “How close is this friend of yours who’s coming to pick me up in Malta? Are you sure he’ll keep his word?”
“We met at the military academy.”
“What the hell?!” exclaimed the grunt charged with loading the instruments into the crate. He practically yanked the handle off the case. Luckily he put it down right away and started to drag it along the ground. He loaded the case last, shut the crate with a bang, and left it for the porters. They took a while, and when they finally loaded the crate onto the truck and then carried it from the truck to the loading dock, it was late and hot and they were tired, and they didn’t even notice that the side that said “top” was on the bottom, and the “bottom” was on top. The inspectors didn’t pay any attention to the crate, but it took hours for them to decide what would go on the ship. The sun was hot, and when the ship finally left, Terracina began to feel unwell. He was stuck on the bottom of the crate, and the airholes were blocked. He hadn’t realized that he was claustrophobic. He felt the need to scream and at a certain point he did scream, but what came out was a squeak, muffled by fear. He tried to poke through the thin tape he had placed on the holes in order to hide them, but once he found the holes he was unable to push. He felt panicked, as if he had been buried alive. He was desperate to get out of the case, and he began to move, but he was so tightly packed and twisted that he could only push, to no effect. He was sweating, and the sweat had made his glasses slip to the end of his nose and soaked his clothes. Then he pissed. The urine went down one leg and spread around the bottom of the case, dampening his arm and his elbow with a smelly warmth that slowly cooled. He forced himself to calm down, to breathe normally in order to conserve air. The crossing took a long time. By the time the ship reached the dock it was nighttime. There was no one there, and the entire load was left in the hold of the ship.
The following day was Sunday. Fisher went back to the docks in the early morning. He had gone the previous afternoon at the scheduled arrival time, but had been informed roughly that the ship was late and that he should return the following day. There was a lot of traffic these days, and many shipments from Tripoli were sorted at this dock; the dockworkers had little time to spare for someone inquiring after a shipment of musical instruments. When he came back the following day, Fisher found that there were not many people around, and that they were all very busy. The ship was moored and orders were to unload it on Monday because there was nothing urgent on board, the dockworkers told him as they handled the ropes of another shipment. Fisher began to get seriously worried and decided to look for another solution. He was extremely law-abiding, and he had been a soldier, and even though he had left the military, his respect for rules, laws, and order were completely embedded in his brain; it did not even occur to him to bribe one of the dockworkers. He thought of the man in the cello case, and he wanted to get him out, but he did not know how to accomplish this except by following the chain of command. He decided that he would try to find the captain of the ship, tell him that he needed the instruments for a concert that night-a white lie that he had come up with only after much thought-and get permission to unload the crate. He climbed up the ladder to the bridge.
“The Captain went to town; he’ll be back tonight.”
By now Terracina was out of breath. The hours passed and no one came to free him. The ship had been moored for a long time, but he could not hear any footsteps. The silence was torture. Terracina breathed with difficulty; the thought occurred to him that he had never imagined dying like this. Suddenly he felt a liquid flowing down from his eyes and moistening his shoulder and dripping lightly on the cello case. Tears, a few sobs. Terracina was crying out of fear and self-pity, as he stood there soaked in his urine, sweat, and vomit, the last of which had emerged when the ship began to rock back and forth in the waves. The fetid vomit had dried there, at the corner of his mouth. Finally, he had completely surrendered to his self-pity and the tears had begun to flow. He hoped to catch his tears with his tongue in order to alleviate his terrible thirst, but they just kept pouring straight down from his temple. Finally, he gave up. He fell asleep or lost consciousness, or both.
“Quickly, but be careful.” Fisher was very agitated and hovered around the two dockhands he had managed to find at that late hour; they were clumsily maneuvering around the crate with a picklock and pliers. By the time the captain had returned, it was already nine o’clock; relaxed from his unexpected day of freedom in Malta, he had found Fisher there, more nervous than ever. He couldn’t understand how they could still have the concert at that hour of the night, but he agreed, realizing that for Fisher it was a life or death issue.
And so it was. Terracina was awoken by the blows and began to move around, to call out. He had lost all control and could think of nothing other than getting out of there, but no matter how much he tried to call out, his voice was muffled by the crates and drowned out by the noise of the hammers and the voices of the dockworkers who were unpacking from the top, or rather what was supposed to have been the bottom of the pile. “Violins, violins and horns: are you sure about the cello?” When they reached the bottom they noticed a wet spot that had soaked through the boards. They didn’t think much of it, until they heard cries and became suspicious. They looked at each other before grabbing the cello, but they were stopped by Fisher’s voice; by then, Fisher had completely regained his self-control and had every intention of getting rid of them on the spot. “OK, this is it. Thank you, I’ll take care of it from here,” he commanded, but they didn’t move. He gave them some extra cash and made an explicit sign for them to disappear. They did so, but hid further on. And they saw the man emerge from the case, uncertain, squashed, less-than-human. Fisher put his arm around Terracina’s shoulders, thinking he could help him walk, but Terracina, overwhelmed with emotion, relief, and happiness, seemed unable to do anything. To speed things up, Fisher picked him up and carried him. And the dockworkers ran off to the pub to unload their story.
“I’m*Š alive.” The voice was poignant. He didn’t say “I’m David,” or “I’m in Malta,” just those two words: “I’m alive.” It was the only thing that mattered and he was realizing it for the first time. How silly to have wasted so much time for nothing. It was as if suddenly the light had been turned on after the roar of darkness; he half-closed his eyes with pleasure and opened his lips as he listened to his breath, sure, free. And he repeated: I’m alive, I’m alive. He couldn’t say anything else, and after the initial shock, it took his wife some time to get any information out of him about where he was, when he would come home, why he was there, how he had gotten there from Tripoli, and what had happened while he was there. They hadn’t had any news from him for ten days and their neighbors had said only that four soldiers with bayonets had come and taken him away. They had cried so much, and they had been so worried, but he was all right, wasn’t he? And he listened, dumb with happiness, and even her anxious, slightly petulant voice was so pleasant, so conforting, so filled with love and not just habit or companionship. He told her, “I’ll tell you everything tonight. Don’t worry. I’ll take the first plane,” and he asked to speak to his beautiful adolescent daughter, whom he adored. He said: “How wonderful it is to hear your voice.” Then he hung up. He realized that he had slept just as he was, soiled and soaked in urine. His clothes were thrust in a corner as far away from him as possible, and gave off a terrible stink. Or maybe the stink emanated from his own body; he got up to look for the bathroom. He looked around and tried to reconstruct what had happened. Fisher, Ian Fisher, had been so kind to him; he had to find a way to thank him. He had carried him all the way, placed him on the bed, even half undressed him. And the room where he woke up was a hotel room, the ashtray said Sheraton Hotel; it was pleasant and right downtown, Terracina thought as he opened the curtains. He stepped into the shower after ordering breakfast and the day’s newspapers.
LIVE STOWAWAY FOUND IN CELLO was the headline in the local newspaper. HE TRAVELED IN A CRATE FROM TRIPOLI TO MALTA. The novice reporter who had gone to the port the night before, planning to write a colorful little piece about the difficult life of the dockworkers, stared at his frontpage headline with a deep sense of satisfaction. His instincts had been good, and what was the elemental quality of a real reporter? Instinct, he thought triumphantly; he was young and still believed that happiness was a frontpage news item. He considered how this scoop had come about: two guys talking, a few beers, the promise that he would put their names in the paper, and then the story about the ghost that had emerged from the crate of instruments. He ran to the office and the editor redid the front page to get his story in just as it was, with few details. But the editor had ordered him to get the rest of the story the following day. “Remember, Oswald,” he said in the dictatorial voice of someone who’s been in the business his whole life, “remember the five W’s: who, what, where, when, and why. Find out and bring me the piece before six.” “How will I find them?” Oswald asked himself as he walked through the streets of Malta, the paper carefully folded in his pocket so that the title LIVE STOWAWAY and the byline, Oswald Miceli, were prominently displayed.
His secret was out. The paper arrived with his coffee and a wonderful English breakfast. Terracina had to make up for two days without food, and he had ordered the most nourishing breakfast he could think of: fried eggs and bacon, roasted tomatoes, bread, jam, butter, orange juice. He gulped down a piece of bread even before pouring the coffee, and then with the bread in one hand and his coffee cup in the other he had glanced at the front page from a distance. He read LIVE STOWAWAY and immediately became worried. He put down the coffee and picked up the paper while still biting into the bread. Then he read the rest: IN CELLO, and put the bread down. His secret was out. Now what do I do? They don’t know my name, but they can find it easily. All they have to do is ask around at all the hotels, talk to the concierges. Someone must have noticed me last night at the hotel, all smelly and disheveled. I have to get out of here right now, he thought, in a state of confusion; I could have trouble with the government here. I should have asked for asylum right away, now they won’t believe me, especially with my false documents. Where will I go? He thought about his wife; he had assured her that he would be home that night and, in tears, she had promised: I’ll make dinner. It was a gesture of love, a love that is no longer expressed in words or even actions. They were too modest to express their feelings openly, and then there was their daughter, their age. Theirs was a love woven out of habit. Boring. Deep. He thought about his wfe and his daughter. He got dressed quickly and walked to the little fishing port on the other side of the island.
A fisherman from Syracusa agreed to take him. He didn’t ask any questions. He had centuries of experience of not asking questions; the man’s crazed expression was enough. He made a quick sign with his head, a slight nod in the direction of the cabin of the fishing boat, indicating that the man should go down into the hold. Right away, while he distractedly mended his nets and chewed what was left of a cigarette butt. The others had gone into town and he had remained there, alone, under the sun, with his worn-out cap. He had already seen the city and he was too old to go drinking and whoring. He was too old for everything, but they brought him along on their fishing trips because the sea was his life. He had begun fishing when he was a child, he had continued to fish after his son was shot to death, after his wife died of a broken heart, after his daughter left for America. He fished so he wouldn’t feel alone and that ragged traveler would keep him company, in silence, in the hold, while he prepared dinner for the others. They were on their way to Sicily. Italy. Home.
From Ghibli (Milan: Rizzoli, 2003). Copyright 2003 by Luciana Capretti. Translation copyright 2005 Marina Harss. All rights reserved.