The American boy, whose name was David, had always collected things. Coins, minerals, seashells, insects, and even house-brand bars of soap from hotels in his family’s travels. His collections helped him know who he was when so much of life did not; and the things he collected did not make him bleed, when so much of the world—the sharp, angular things of it—did. When you bought an old coin in a store, the coin didn’t bruise your skin or scratch your fingers. You just needed to make sure you didn’t bump against the display cases. When you picked up a gastropod or pelecypod on the mud of a bay, it didn’t hurt you. You just needed to make sure you avoided tripping on a piece of cement from an old dock. You took them home, these things you collected, because they were safe, and put them in neatly organized boxes or jars or trays or books and, when you wanted to, took a deep breath and looked at them in safety. If you did this, your dreams of blood—of bleeding wherever you walked—stopped for a few nights, and were instead about bruises, just that, not skin that leaked out what kept you alive.
The disease was called “severe hemophilia A.” Neither of his parents had it, so it was, the doctors said, a “spontaneous mutation,” common enough, and one that the treatments of recombinant FVIII—paid for by the Navy everywhere his family went—would help, but only if he didn’t miss them.
• • • •
When his family moved—because of his father’s military assignments—to a new city every two or three years, they had to find a new doctor for his treatments, sometimes nearby, sometimes not. He also had to learn the new dangers—the new ways he might bleed both inside and out. But he also always found something new to collect or additions to what he already collected. It was a way to tie it all together—life and the world and himself. It was a story, and the story continued, which was important. Without it, who was he, and why was he in this world bleeding this way? Was he only a shadow, bled dry, or was he a boy whose skin glowed like the sun?
His father’s new assignment was a smoggy port in Northern Italy. Just south of that port, his family would live in a fishing village with a little cove, a castle above it, and clean air and the very sun he wanted to be bright like. When he learned that all of the boys his age in the village had a stamp collection, he began one, too. They were happy with theirs, and he would be happy with his. Sometimes the drives to the base at Livorno for his infusions—to keep him from bleeding so much—took him out of school in the village, where he was learning the language and Roman history and the pig production of Calabria and Tuscany. But he could work on his stamp collection in the car—in his stamp album, with its neat rows of slips.
Stamps were the safest of all collectible things, weren’t they? You didn’t have to put pins through them or struggle with drawers or wooden boxes. And having a stamp collection was important in this village. If he wanted friends, which he did—friends at the school where he would be for three years—he would have to fit in, wouldn’t he? They were kind boys, he’d discovered, rarely asking about his bruises or the careful one-foot-after-another way he walked; and when they did ask, it was gently, not the way kids did back in the States.
Besides, it was a collection—and he knew how to collect things, didn’t he?
Yes, you could buy new stamps at post offices and old stamps in philatelic stores and by mail. That was easy. But that wasn’t how his friends had made their collections. Theirs had been started by their grandfathers in Liguria or Tuscany or Umbria, even their great-grandfathers, and continued by their fathers, and now by the boys themselves. His friends might purchase stamps to grow their collections, but the heart of those collections were people, people who gave you stamps whether they were relatives or friends or strangers. That kind of collection was the best, he knew.
The boy’s family was soon living in a little stucco house the villagers called a villetta. He would walk carefully, looking for holes and rocks, on the dirt road that ambled from their villetta through shady olive groves, out into the sun, then down to the waterfront, to its colorful boats and crumbling castle, and the school building with its stern façades. None of the trees’ branches hung low over the road from his house, so he was safe. No dogs were ever loose that might break the skin if they tried to bite him. He would pass a convent whose walls were covered with lichen and whose courtyard was almost as dark as night from the trees that had grown unpruned for an eternity there. He would also—right where the sunlight broke through—pass the massive wrought-iron gate of the Perotto family villa and the endless path that led from that gate up, like a rose-bush-decorated snake, to the front of the Villa Perotto, which no one in the village had ever been inside. It was rumored that witches—streghe—lived in little shacks in the olive groves all around, poisoning cats and talking to the green wall lizards, and he had come to believe it himself. Even his friends believed in spells—ones that came from the shadows of the trees, the darkness of the convent, the sea in moonlight, and, in turn, in miracles that came from the light. Ones that came from the kindness of the people, their lack of cruelty, and what mattered most to them and always had: family. But the magic didn’t touch him directly—he still bled every day and always would, world without end—and so he did not think much about it. Why should he? It was their magic, the village’s, not his, wasn’t it? He was an interloper and would be gone from its blue cove and green hills and people and sun soon enough. He would return to the shadows.
Besides, he had real things to do. He had, in fact, decided this morning to do it, and he did. He went ahead and stopped beside the black gate of the great villa, looked down to make sure there was nothing he might trip on—a step, a stone, a brick—and took a step toward it. He was an American, but people would have been kind to him even if he weren’t. They were different here. Perhaps the people who lived in the villa wouldn’t mind if he asked. He would be courteous, of course. There had to be envelopes, old ones—with old stamps on them—somewhere in the countless rooms of that villa, and maybe they would help him with his collection. Someone in this villa might even have a stamp collection himself and would understand why he, David, needed one, too—so that he might know who he was in this new place. Men who collected stamps had once been boys who’d collected them, known who they were by collecting them, and so . . .
• • • •
He put his hands cautiously on the iron design—a hawk or eagle with wings outspread—and checked for any metal that might tear his skin. Then he looked again up the path that led to the villa.
He rang the doorbell, which was black and smooth and as safe as a seashell worn by the waves and sand. He was nervous, but that, he told himself, was only because he wanted to ask his question correctly, in the right way, respectfully.
He could see an old woman in a simple black dress—the kind so many old women here wore—coming down the long path from the villa. It took her ages. She had a bad leg and wobbled a little, so the path was even longer for her. When she reached the gate, she did not open it, but asked him gently what he wanted. “Che vuoi, ragazzo?”
“I am the American boy who attends the middle school in this village.” His family, he went on, lived down the road in the villetta La Lupetta, the little house just below the Villa Lupo, which belonged to Doctor Lupo and his family. She nodded. Everyone knew the doctor, whose name meant “wolf.”
He collected francobolli, he said, and was sorry to bother her; but wondered whether the family had any old envelopes with stamps on them that they might be willing to give him for his collection, which (he explained) needed more brightly colored stamps. It was unreasonable that he should ask, he admitted—“Mi dispiace, Egregia Signora”—but he would appreciate her consideration of a boy’s request.
He had red hair, blue eyes, and freckles. His face was round like a moon. He had been teased for these things at his father’s other assignments—these and his bleeding and the fact that he didn’t like sports—but here he had not, and he didn’t know why. He knew he stood out and that the old woman probably knew, even without his saying it, who he was, and his family’s story.
The old woman looked at him oddly, as if she knew him, blinked and said very gently, “Si, capisco, ragazzo mio. Please wait a moment.”
My boy, she had said, and it wasn’t just an expression here, he remembered. You said it only to family and friends, people you knew and cared about.
He watched her ascend the path slowly back to the villa and, reaching the dark portico, disappear inside. He waited for what seemed like an hour. He felt bad that he was making her, with her bad leg, do all this walking. He shouldn’t have asked.
When she reappeared in the sunlight, she had something—no, many things—in her hand; and as she grew closer, he could see they were exactly what he had asked for: envelopes—and postcards, too. Postcards were even better because the postcard itself was often beautiful. As she handed them to him through the gate, she was smiling because he was smiling. His happiness for some reason made her happy.
It was then that he saw she had only one clear eye. One was brown, the other cloudy, as if blind.
“You may have these, ragazzo mio,” she said, again gently. “I wish you the very best of luck with your collection. Stamps are a wonderful thing. Boys should always collect them.” She paused, and a shadow passed over them both; or perhaps it was only the sadness in her voice as she said: “Many years ago the man of this villa collected francobolli, too, as did his son, but their collections are no longer here . . .”
“Moltissime grazie, Signora.”
“Prego, ragazzo mio . . .”
Her happiness at talking to him—that’s how it felt—seemed to win over the shadow, and her one good eye was dancing with light now.
He continued to thank her—he did not want to leave—and he wished he knew the language better than a year of tutoring and school allowed. She would not move either, he saw, unless he moved first. And so—though the step he took seemed to make her a little sad, and that was the last thing he wanted to do to her—he was the one to leave first, looking down again to make sure it was safe to walk, but also stopping and turning once to look back at her as she, too, turned and began to ascend the path again, her black dress like a shrinking shadow beyond the dark iron of the tall gate, the windows of the villa suddenly dark, too.
• • • •
In his bedroom, on his bed, after checking his body for bruises, and thinking of the old woman’s pale, bloodless eye, he didn’t remove the stamps from the envelopes and postcards. He would never remove them, he told himself. You just didn’t do that when the envelopes and cards were old. The stamps were from the Second World War. He could tell from the pictures on them. The handwriting was wonderful—the sevens with their crossed trunks, the ones that looked more like capital A’s without a bar, and the floweriness of the handwriting. He saw now that the postcards weren’t picture postcards at all, but simply letter-cards. He was disappointed, but not really. The ink was ink—but instead of being perfectly black it was a dark red, sometimes a brown that was almost black. Was this what people called “sepia”? Two of the envelopes—the smallest—had little cards in them, with exquisite, tiny writing, the cards bordered in black. He remembered from reading that stamps bordered with black meant death—that the person on the stamp had died. The black borders were like a little funeral for the person.
He tried to read the letters and cards, but gave up. The words were those of grown-ups writing to each other, not to a boy of twelve, and, even when he could read the words, they were hard to understand. It was enough to have the old war stamps—some with Victor Emanuel, the King, some with old airplanes or Roman busts, some with the man they called Mussolini. It was enough to smell their mustiness, something else that couldn’t hurt him, and know that they’d been written in another time. A time when the crippled men in the village had received their wounds in that war—bleeding more than he ever had—and become crippled. A time when the women who now wore black had lost their husbands to a bleeding that couldn’t be stopped, and started to wear their black dresses, like the old woman from the villa. Like a funeral, that dress.
• • • •
Not long after he was given the envelopes and cards, the boy’s father threw himself on his son, knocking him out of the way of an oncoming car near the doctors’ office on the Navy base in Livorno. His father—a tall, gentle man, an officer—broke an ankle saving him, and the boy felt a strange mixture of gratitude and guilt. At least the broken ankle didn’t bleed. At least it was just a bruise. “That is what fathers do for their sons,” his father explained, his eyes as blue as the boy’s and his skin just as pale.
• • • •
A week after that, the boy’s bleeding stopped. It stopped suddenly, and it stopped completely. He didn’t bruise anymore. His cuts bled only for a moment, the blood clotting as it was supposed to. He no longer needed the infusions, the doctor visits, the drives to and from them. He no longer had to walk carefully.
His Navy doctors in Livorno—and specialists from Genoa that they brought it in to try to understand it—could not explain it. There was, of course, no connection between the car episode and this, and no one even suggested it. Only the boy wondered, and then he stopped wondering.
Bloodwork over the next three months showed the impossible: The FVIII deficiency had disappeared. The clotting protein was now suddenly present.
The adults talked on and on about it, but what mattered to the boy—the only thing that could possibly matter, miracle that it was, and a miracle, he felt sure, that was somehow tied to the village and that old woman—was that he didn’t have to be careful anymore, didn’t have to check every minute of every day every inch of his skin for scratches, cuts, and bruises.
It took him months to learn how to walk differently, touch things differently, be different in the world, not afraid. Sometimes it was frustrating, how long it was taking, because it seemed silly—how breaking a painful “habit” could be so difficult. He also, he soon saw, had to give up a big piece of who he was—a boy who bled—and perhaps this made the breaking even more difficult. But by the end of summer the new feeling—that he was like other boys now—told him who he was. A boy who didn’t bleed.
He continued adding to his stamp collection, yes, but it felt different. It was not desperate. He didn’t do it nervously, with a dread whose face was never quite clear. He collected stamps simply because the other boys did, because it was fun, and it was fun because the dread was fading, and with it, the shadows.
Over the years, he would start to bleed again, but stop within minutes. His doctors back in the States could not explain why—it made no sense because the deficiency was still gone—but when he did bleed, brief though it was, he would dream that night of something small and mysterious bleeding in the darkness forever, no one knowing it was there. Was it a heart, dead but alive somehow? Was it a tiny baby, dead at birth? Was it something else in his dream?
As the years passed, the episodes finally stopped. The dreams stopped, too. He was a man now and could forget how much blood there had once been in his world.
• • • •
When the boy was a man of forty-five, living in his own country—his own father long since retired from the military, and the bleeding of his youth a memory that sometimes felt like someone else’s (though the day his father had saved him he would never forget)—he found himself teaching high school history. He loved history as much as he’d once loved stamps, and weren’t they alike? Every stamp was history, and every country knew what it was by its stamps. He had been teaching history for years, had been married twice—the first time far too young—and now had three grown children whom he loved, but who had never been interested in stamps, or any collection, for that matter. It was a silly feeling, he knew—feeling a little sad about that—because he was no longer interested in his old collections either and hadn’t been for years. People were what mattered. In fact, he often said that to his students, who weren’t quite sure, he knew from their faces, why he was saying it.
On a spring day, cleaning one of the two attics of his house, he found in a large trunk the box with the old envelopes and cards. The box was black and sticky with something, and at first he didn’t recognize them, those letters and cards, the stickiness so filled the box, leaking from its corner and flaps. Someone had—perhaps his parents, perhaps he himself—years ago taped the box up with masking tape, and that was the only thing that had kept it together as the cardboard grew soggy and tried to fall apart.
The sticky material, as he got it on his hands, felt more like honey than paint or an adhesive, but he couldn’t, in the dim light of the attic, see well enough to identify it.
He got rubber gloves from the kitchen, put the damp and crusty box on newspapers on the porch, and pulled out the envelopes and cards. The stickiness was a mystery, but he was more interested in what the box held. The last time he had touched them, he had been a child.
He wasn’t sure, holding the letters—covered as they were by whatever the substance was—that he’d be able to read them. He got a wet sponge and tried to wipe them clean, but the water took the writing away as well. He stopped, sighed, started reading what was readable, and found that there was more than enough.
It was stunning.
It was history, immense history, that he held in his hand, sticky or not. He’d held it in his hands as a boy, but without knowing it.
The letters and cards were condolences—ones from senators, doctors, generals, archbishops, members of Mussolini’s cabinet—to the family of the man who had died, and died violently, though not on the battlefield. Or a battlefield of another kind. An important man. A hero of the Great War, and now, in these letters, a man of position in another war: His Excellency the General Giuseppe Perotto, Ministero dello Stato and Senatore del Regno, and a member of il Duce’s Ministry of War. A man important not just to a fishing village in Liguria, where he had been born, but to an entire country and its role in that war. “To the Family of General Giuseppe Perotto. We are aware of the painful travails you are enduring at this time of your incalculable loss. The crazed individual who has taken the General and Ugo from us…” “My dear Margherita—What a terrible surprise I received this morning by telegraph from the Ministry of War. I was, at that moment, overwhelmed with gratitude and yet a sense of terrible loss as well for those weeks my wife and I spent with you, the General, and Ugo in l930 in Liguria, and can only pray . . .” “I send to you by words that must fail to capture the human heart my most profound condolences for the loss of the General and your son to the insanity of these times. His passing will be felt by all . . . .”
Why had the old woman in black given him such letters? Where had she found them when she returned to the villa? Why were they still there, ready to be given to a boy? Who was she, and was the “man of the villa” she had spoken of that day at the gate, when he was thirteen, the General? If so, what had happened to that man’s collection?
He didn’t know; but the letters remained, and they made his hands tremble, holding them. He needed to look something up, but what was that stickiness? It was, he found himself thinking—crazy as the idea was—as if the letters themselves had somehow leaked the black-but-red stickiness into that box, all over the letters and cards. But that wasn’t possible. He was tired—neither he nor his wife had slept well the night before—and finding the letters had put him in a dreamy place, imagining all sorts of things from the sheer emotion of it.
Tossing the vision aside, he went to his computer and did the quick research he wanted to do, a simple search, and stopping suddenly when he felt the blood drain from his face and hands and the air of his office turn cold.
General Giuseppe Perotto (the entry read) had been killed by a lone “anti-Fascist” revolutionary with his Carcano M91 rifle on August 3, 1943.
The assassin had been stalking the General’s family that day in Rome, planning to kill them all; and when the first shot was fired, hitting the General in the chest, the General had thrown himself on his wife and son.
That had not been enough to save Ugo, the boy, or himself. The assassin was a marksman trained by the Army.
“Ugo Perotto was twelve—” the entry went on.
“—collected stamps, and suffered from hemophilia.”
• • • •
When he got up from his computer, he was shaking. He went back to the porch, to the box of letters, and brought them into the kitchen, to the counter there, where the light was brighter. Removing the rubber gloves at last, he touched the substance both where it was still sticky and where it was dry and crusty. He recognized it now. Without a doubt.
To make sure, he smelled his sticky fingers, caught the whiff of rust, and tasted it, too. Saltiness. Metal. After all, it was a sea inside us, wasn’t it?—and full of iron.
Black and a near-black brown, but with red. It couldn’t escape being red even when it was black. It was blood. Old blood.
The letters had bled for him so that he would not have to bleed. They had bled for him for thirty-five years, and he hadn’t known it. He had put the letters away, as if they were not—could not be—important any longer to him, the bleeding gone at last. And yet they had been there in his life forever, the reason he was no longer cursed, the reason he’d been able to be a good husband and good father and lived a normal life.
The letters and the blood they bled for him, a boy the Perotto family hadn’t even known, could not bring a father and son back to life, but they could keep another boy alive even if it meant bleeding for him in the darkness of a box, one attic after another. For if they did that, an old woman in black could leave the shadow of a villa’s portico, enter the sunlight, and begin walking and keep walking, thinking of the grandson she had loved and missed so very much, and might have again, if only for the briefest moment, in the moon-faced boy she was about to meet.