The mosquito was dead within seconds of its bite, the victim’s blood smeared across Nathaniel’s fingers; the sting of his slap, the red imprint of his hand on his daughter Una’s thin white arm, worse by far, in the immediate aftermath, than the mosquito’s injury. Una looked sadly at her father, her eyes laden with worry at what, possibly, she had done wrong this time. His other daughter, Rose, his son, Julian, and his wife, Sophia, all turned to stare at him and Una, their countenance and posture in a familiar anxious confusion.
What now, Sophia wondered. Why must Una always draw so much of Nathaniel’s attention to herself, be it for good or ill? Nothing can ever be simple with them. Never, she reflected, can we just enjoy a day out as a family without some drama or other. She was tired, so tired of it, and yet she adored her husband’s devotion to his family, and even facilitated his special relationship with their eldest daughter, now fourteen and particularly sensitive, not to say difficult.
Sophia had never had such attention from her own father, and knew her daughter would greatly benefit from such paternal focus, even if she sometimes found the intensity between them unbearable—their frequent quarrels like those of lovers. His stories and novels used to be her rivals, now it was her own daughter. But she supposed there was something comforting in this.
“A mosquito,” Nathaniel said, imagining, as was his wont, all that was to come—his beloved daughter’s long battle with malaria devolving into meningitis, then typhus, leaving her physically and mentally compromised, indeed mad for the rest of her life. And all of it his fault, because he was so keen to come to Italy, his long dreamed of Italy, though he knew the dangers. He took a risk and lost, but he knew he was just as likely to lose not taking risks. There was no avoiding loss. Tragedy came for everyone sooner or later.
He chased these horrid thoughts from his mind, sure that the very existence of them would lead to their reality. Again, his fault.
“Let’s pay it no mind,” he ventured, “and imagine ourselves covered in armor: Roman gladiators about to wage battle for the entertainment of Caesar.” The family was standing near the Gate of Life, the eastern entrance to the Colosseum. With his handkerchief, Nathaniel discreetly wiped his fingers clean of his child’s blood. He then turned to Una and said quietly, “Forgive me for that violent gesture. I was anxious that the insect not harm you.”
“Think nothing of it,” Una said, her hand still covering the flesh violated by both father and bug. “I should have more promptly thanked you for protecting me, father.”
Nathaniel kissed the top of her head. He felt the swell of tears but quickly blinked them back. How he loved this girl, how he wished her all the joy and success the world had to offer. He glanced at Rose and Julian who had run ahead and were climbing up into the stands of the ancient amphitheater. He loved his other children, too, of course, as much as Una. It was just that he had experienced this all-consuming and strangely self-reflecting love first with Una.
Nathaniel determined he would have to get his family away from the Colosseum at once, but without causing alarm. He would feign a bad mood or fatigue or a need to work. Indeed, his sudden anxiety was causing his head to pound. Malaria was a true threat and though the mosquito he had just slaughtered might have been innocent, another might not be.
Una ran off to join the others in their upward scramble. Nathaniel decided he would not immediately tell Sophia about the insect and the blood. She was herself of delicate health and prone to worry. He didn’t want to cause her to panic needlessly.
“Dove, I would like us to return to our rooms soon,” he said, as they slowly climbed the stairs. “I have a headache and this sun is relentless.”
“But we just got here,” his wife objected. “And it takes so much effort to get us all ready and out the door. It seems such a shame to turn around now and go back home. Besides, it’s a beautiful day with almost no humidity.”
Nathaniel shook his head. “Call the children. We’re going home.”
“I won’t,” Sophia said, in a rare exhibition of defiance. “If you want to go home, then go yourself. I’ll stay out with the children. I’ve seen other unchaperoned women and I’ll be fine.”
Later, he thought how lucky it was that they’d stayed out to enjoy those few hours of happiness, the five of them soaking up Rome and being together as they never would be again. Oh, they would find ways to enjoy themselves, but never with the same ease and delight, all specters at bay.
“Here,” Sophia said, when they reached the stands, the enormous sun-drenched oval arena before them. “Come here,” she said, tugging on his arm. “Sit and I will massage your temples.” He appreciated the reversal: Sophia the one who suffered from debilitating headaches, he the one to massage her pretty little skull.
As the children climbed over and among the old stones, Sophia’s fingers pressed lightly into his scalp, easing his fears. She will be fine, he thought, as he watched Una chasing after Julian. Then he closed his eyes and concentrated on the gentle strokes of his wife’s hands across his head under the blazing sun. He so loved his Dove, though she interpreted the world visually, instinctively. Words were secondary to her.
Yes, everything he did was wonderful to her, and he appreciated that. He might have married someone who would have challenged him more, but Sophia’s adoration gave him, he had once thought, all he wanted. A man couldn’t have everything, he’d believed, but then Una came along.
In Una, he experienced a love he hadn’t known existed. It was the kind of love that perhaps religion offered, the erotic yet physically chaste love a nun has for Christ. He wanted to know everything there was to know about her. He wanted to create her, and in so doing, be created by her. He wanted to feel her every breath, know her every thought, give her everything she might want from him and more.
The totality of his love for her overjoyed and overwhelmed him. But such obsessive love also meant pain. He could not spare her from life’s suffering or disappointment. He could not hope that she would fill all the empty, inadequate, sad places in him, as much as he, at times, was convinced she could. He was, in fact, terribly afraid that this need of his would somehow destroy her.
His headache eased by his wife’s touch, he stood up and wandered about the massive structure, alone save a few other tourists as intrepid as they, and a handful of guards, half of whom dozed on their stools. He tried to forget the mosquito, that tiny insignificant parasitic insect, and instead told the children about the naval battles, the wild animal hunts, the gladiatorial combats… glorifying, he thought to himself, centuries of pain. He could almost hear the howls of the 10,000 animals famously killed in one day during an emperor’s hunt, taste the blood and sweat of the tens of thousands of slaves who built the place.
This pile of stones, he concluded, is a monument to human torment. What, he asked himself, have I done?
Over the years, after they had returned to live at the Wayside in Concord, Sophia would often tell him to stop thinking he had such power to prevent the ills of the world, to change the fate of his daughter. Only our humility, she would say, is our saving grace. He appreciated Sophia’s words and they sometimes worked to keep his guilt and despair at bay. But he also knew she blamed him, and would never forgive him, for Una, yes, and for so much more.
At times, at a moment in the day when he stopped writing and looked out the window of his study to admire the new buds on the dogwood, or mourn the burnt-orange maple leaves swirling their way from branch to earth, he thought of himself as a monster. Then, shaking off this indulgence, he went back to work. For there, Una proved more vital to him than ever.
Originally published in the New York Review of Books | May 2020