Silvia said that from some angles I looked handsome; she left me when another man convinced her that she was beautiful. I tore her picture and put on a kettle of tea. I munched a corn muffin and contemplated my fate. I’d exposed my heart like a puppy’s underbelly. Emotional involvement was the problem. I’d begin a no-female diet. I’d tone down all my relationships and avoid acquaintances whose neck veins bulged in discussions over gay marriage, climate change, or how to cultivate tomatoes. I’d develop a Solomon’s coolness in the face of thorny disputes. My wisdom was often ignored, so I’d stop giving advice. I’d be cheerful because likeability was the most important quality. My superiors would dote on me. Even better, I’d enter politics. Why sweat when I could earn money for flattery and smiles? I’d inflate others’ self-importance. Praise would be the opiate I dispersed; I’d seek people for whom no complement was too grandiose to swallow as truth. My face would be a smiling mask; no one would see behind the image. Insult and injury would be swirled and swallowed. Like a jagged rock plunged into the belly of life’s giant mixer, I’d smooth myself into an indistinguishable shape.
I shook my head. God, I needed to get away.
The gondola swept me to the top of Monte Tamaro. I hiked to Mario Botta’s modern-architecture church and looked out from the concrete plank that extended from under a cross. Cotton clouds draped the shoulders of snow-speckled, gray-blue jagged peaks lording over groves of pine and a dark and light green patched valley below. The air had the redemptive chill of a baptismal plunge. I breathed in nature and thought of Silvia without angst in my gut. “Godspeed,” I said aloud, but in my mind, I hoped her new boyfriend would give her bubonic clap.
I pounded along the rocky mountainside. Crusty, dingy snow clung to the slopes and diverted me far off the marked trails. Pink, white, yellow and violet wildflowers peeked through rocks and carpeted slopes. Water flowed down crags like silver fingers and fed a glacial blue-green stream at my feet. I knelt and plunged my hand into churned white water. I closed my eyes and slowly dripped a handful onto the ground.
“Earth Mother, accept this libation and cede to me your chthonic power as you did for great Apollo.” I laughed for the first time in weeks.
The grey goats looked like ants from a distance, scattered, stock-still over a hillside watching me wide-eyed. I approached, and the animals pressed around me like kinsmen. A clearing mist revealed a gray stone hut with rust-accented roof tiles built into the hill. No other structure marked the horizon. Bells tinkled as the goats followed me over broken rocks, chewed down grass, and manure. Amassed near the hut, a pile of jagged stones. Atop, a square chunk of limestone inscribed with a phallic symbol. I straightened. I’d seen the identical sign at brothel ruins in Pompeii. The hut had a weather-beaten, carved wooden door. Alongside, on a deep-set window sill, a black cat squatted behind a hollow log with white flowers. The cat eyed me, then slunk inside through a small square opening in the window shutters. A frigid gust howled down a natural wind tunnel. I shivered. Like spectators in an amphitheater, the goats squatted on the hillside. Perhaps, I thought, I could appeal for shelter. I knocked. No response. Through my fleece, I chilled to the nuts. I took a breath, turned the handle, and entered.
A blue and white wood-burning cook stove, aside a deep porcelain sink, simmered garlicky tomato sauce in a black pot. Through a rear door, drying rounds of cheese sat on shelves. A blonde in sheer-white sat sideways at the head of a table on a chair draped with a Turkish rug. Her bare legs hung over the arm, and she swung her feet slowly while twirling a curl with a forefinger. She tilted her head at me, and I rethought swearing off women. A girl with dark eyes and severely pulled back hair sat at a butcher-block table and squeezed whey from curds. Her arm displayed a sleeve tattoo of a naked woman seductively writhing in a floral field above the words, “Fools’ Gold.” She raised an eyebrow but was silent. The black cat had disappeared.
A fulsome, flush-cheek girl burst in from a low doorway of the side room. “Oh, hello. Welcome.” She spoke in Italian-accented English.
“Sorry to barge in, but it’s Antarctica out there. I’m Benjamin.”
“I’m Cicciolina. Fabienne’s making cheese and Michelle,” she shook a forefinger, “must get dressed and help me milk the goats.”
Fabienne nodded. She squeezed curds with her fist, the white whey flowing down her knuckles. Michelle’s tongue touched her lips when she smiled.
I said, “You’re far from the trail. I presume you don’t have Internet or mobile service?”
Cicciolina said, “We like our isolation.”
“Do you girls attend the University of Lugano?” I asked.
Cicciolina hesitated, then smiled at her friends. “We’re students of alchemy. Our cheese has a reputation for its magical qualities, so some villagers climb to reach us. We also receive the occasional lost traveler.”
“How long have you been here?” I asked.
Cicciolina’s eyes sparkled. “You must be hungry. Sit, we have cheese and goat sausage.”
I sat at Michelle’s dangling feet. Her eyes were green, her fragrance musk.
I asked, “Where’s the black cat?”
Fabienne shot me a sideward glance.
Cicciolina giggled. “She’s closer than you think.”
Michelle nudged Fabienne. “He’s handsome.”
Coquettish Fabienne played hard to get, her movements graceful. Michelle set my heart apace, and Cicciolina had a body to lose oneself. Was a foursome feasible? Don’t get ahead of yourself, I thought. I contemplated picking off each woman in turn. While Michelle and Cicciolina milked the goats, I’d move on Fabienne. As I contemplated my opening gambit, I peered into the darkness of the side room as an option for nooky. I’d have Cicciolina or Michelle outside, the hut wall shielding us from the wind. The images in my brain steeled me to the challenge.
Cicciolina put a china plate of sliced cheese and sausage in front of me.
She said, “I recommend the sausage. My family recipe. The hickory smoke salt gives a special flavor.”
“I’ve never eaten goat sausage. Do you have any wine?” I asked.
Cicciolina poured a tumbler of red. “We only use males for sausage, but not the entire animal. We bury the testicles in a little ceremony.”
“That’s the pile of stones with the phallic carving?” I asked.
The cheese was aged, sharp, and a delicious mix with a chunk of sausage. I gulped wine and developed an instant buzz.
As I ate, the women spoke like I’d disappeared.
Michelle sighed. “Couldn’t you have waited before initiating the transformation?”
Fabienne said, “Be still.”
Cicciolina said, “Girls, let’s not fight over meat.”
Michelle asked, “A piece of meat?”
Fabienne asked, “Did you hear his thoughts? He’s already a satyr.”
The women’s words echoed in my hollow-chamber skull. My eye lids became heavy.
Fabienne purred. “Not long now.”
My body felt like floating in amniotic fluid. I drifted. I went black.
I awoke outside, among the stones, grass, and bleating goats. I breathed a lung-full of air and felt revived, like a healthy animal. Maybe that cheese had rejuvenating qualities? I exhaled a long breath. The bell around my neck tinkled. I bleated, “Naaaaah.”
My eyes cast down to feet that were now cloven hooves. A chill shot through me from tail to horn. Damn, I thought, I hope Cicciolina isn’t making sausage.
The black cat at my feet smiled, looked up at me and nodded.
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