“E tu chi sei?” the man whispered to Malmquist in the darkness. “Sei lo schiavo nuovo?”
“I don’t understand. Do you speak English?”
“Inglese? No, non parlo Inglese.”
“Are you Italian? Where am I? What happened?”
“Di dove sei? Non sapevo che voleva uno schiavo nuovo.”
“I don’t understand you. Where am I?”
“Shsh. Fa silenzio.”
“L’eunuco ha preso uno della sua eta’,” murmured another, with a laugh.
They lit an oil lamp, and the room revealed a group of startled young men wearing simple tunics, lying on thin pallets. “Di dove sei?” they asked.
“Would you please tell me what the hell is going on? I was just in Gary, Indiana, in the future. Escaping from Gary. And then I must have blacked out. Am I shot?”
“Non capisce. Chiedi a Stefano questo da dove viene.”
They opened the door to the room. Just outside another man was sleeping on a pallet. Moonlight bathed a spacious atrium, in the middle of which was a pool, and above that, an open roof. Colonnades, curtains, plants, marble statues. One asked the man outside, “Oh Stefano, di dov’e’ sto tipo?”
The man peered at Malmquist. “E che ne so,” he said.
“Do you guys have any food? I’m really hungry,” said Malmquist, motioning to his stomach.
“Non ci e’ permesso mangiare finche’ la Padrona non finisce i suoi lavaggi mattutini,” said one.
“Non capisce niente. Vedi se Giulia gli trova qualche rimasuglio,” said another. “Stefano, chiedi a Giulia di dargli qualcosa da rosicchiare per stanotte.”
Stefano ran off. Malmquist got up to follow him.
“No!” they said, and held him back. One drew his hand across his neck as a warning, imitating a knife. “Agli schiavi non e’ permesso di muoversi dal loro posto!”
Malmquist sat back down in perplexed silence. In the lamplight, the walls of the simple room gave way to paintings of landscapes and mythological creatures — centaurs, satyrs, cupids, a minotaur.
“Come ti chiami?” one asked him.
“I don’t understand.”
Pointing outside the room, he said “Stefano.” Pointing at himself, “Riccardo.” He pointed at Malmquist.
Stefano had reappeared with a woman. “Uno nuovo?” she whispered, annoyed. “Come mai adesso?”
“E chi lo sa. E’ apparso dal nulla e ci ha svegliato.”
She handed Malmquist a tray with a rolled-up wet hand towel and several small bottles on it.
“What’s this?” he said, sniffing them. “Scents? Perfumes?”
“Devi assistere la Padrona nei suoi lavaggi mattutini, e poi puoi mangiare,” she said, pointing to his stomach.
“I don’t understand. I can’t eat this stuff.”
“No,” she said, gesturing across the atrium to a large closed doorway. “E’ per la Padrona.”
She was kneeling before them on all fours. The atrium light shone through her open tunic from behind and revealed at a glance her hanging breasts and pubic bush, and in the distance, a man sleeping on a pallet before the opposite doorway who had lifted up his head at the present commotion.
“What?” asked Malmquist.
“Dio santo. Non sa che fare. Glielo devo fare vedere io. Avvicinati,” she motioned to Malmquist. “Vicino!”
He sat closer. She opened her legs in front of him and indicated he should clean her groin with the towel and apply the reseda and rugosa oils to her vulva and anus. “Solo un poco!” Then making kissing and licking motions with her mouth, she said, “E poi baciala e leccala.”
But when Malmquist bent down and pressed his mouth to her groin, she slapped him. “Che stai facendo! Non lo devi fare a me ma a lei! Ti sto solo facendo vedere!” She pointed to the door across the atrium. “Fa’ lo stesso con la Padrona quando si sveglia.”
The others in the room were smirking. The man sleeping in front of the door signaled with his finger to keep the noise down.
“I don’t understand,” said Malmquist. “You’re so beautiful.” He rubbed his stomach. “I’m really hungry.”
Giulia left and came back a minute later with a plate of boiled chicken feet. “Okay?”
“What’s this?” he said, disgusted. He began chewing on them anyway. The others went back to sleep. He finished the plate and slept too.
He was nudged awake by Stefano at the break of dawn. “E’ ora di andare dalla Padrona.”
Stefano handed him the tray with the scented oils and a fresh hot towel. He led him across the atrium to the door opposite. The man guarding it received them and opened the door, pushing Malmquist inside. It was a luxurious room, with its own windows and walls adorned in colorful frescoes. There were ivory-inlaid wardrobes and bench chests with gilded feet in the shape of lion’s paws. The center of the room was occupied by a huge bed raised higher than most, and a footstool at the side for climbing onto the bed. It was draped in disordered bedspreads and blankets striped in yellow, blue and purple. Stefano and the guard gestured to Malmquist to mount the bed.
“Ei, gou nucai, kuaidian’er. Deng shenme ne? Mali’er de!” yelled a voice from the bed.
Malmquist climbed the bed and found a middle-aged woman of Asian race.
“Ba maojin na guolai — Yi? Ni na’er lai de? Wo zenme mei jian guo ni?” The woman sat up in the bed at the sight of Malmquist.
“Xin laide nucai,” said the two men from the doorway.
“Zenme huishi’er? Shui anpai de? Hao ba. Jiu zheyang. Wo xian shishi ni, kan ni zuode zenmeyang.”
Malmquist set the tray down by her legs. She opened them. Where there should have been a vagina, there was nothing but a little red scar and an aperture. At the sight of this he convulsed and unleashed a torrent of vomit on her groin.
“Wode ma ya!” she screamed. “Lairen!” Pointing to Malmquist she said to her guard, “Ba ta la xiqu bile!”
The men at the door grabbed Malmquist off the bed and led him back to the other room, where he was confined by the other men. Stefano summoned Giulia, while the Mistress’s guard dashed out of the house. Giulia and several female servants ran into her room.
“What’s happening?” asked Malmquist.
The others looked at him with fear in their eyes and said nothing. Minutes later the guard returned with three muscular men wearing Roman military uniforms. “Dove sta?” they asked.
The offender was produced. Two of the soldiers grabbed Malmquist by the arms and pulled his head back by the hair. The third pulled out a sword and was about to slice open his neck when Giulia screamed, “Non uccidetelo, vi prego! Non sapeva cosa fare! E’ nuovo, non e’ Italiano e non capisce niente. Risparmiatelo, vi prego. E’ stato un incidente!” To the Mistress, who had emerged from her room dressed in a robe, she said, “Nuzhuren, ta bushi guyi de!”
“Zhende? Hao! Danshi, fang ta zou zhiqian, ta bixu gei wo daoqian!”
“Peili daoqian!” the head soldier said to Malmquist.
“I don’t understand.”
“Daoqian! Chiedi perdono!”
Stefano got on his knees and showed Malmquist how to kowtow. Malmquist kowtowed to the Mistress.
“Wo yuanliang ni,” she said. “Hao la. Wo hen manyi. Buguo, zai yi buneng zai er. Hao, women xianzai jiushi pengyou le!” she added with a laugh. To her guard she said, “Rang ta gundan.”
The soldiers escorted Malmquist out of the house and deposited him on the street.
“What’s going on?” he said as they walked off. He banged on the double doors, before reaching for one of the bronze lion’s head knockers. The Mistress’s guard appeared.
“I want some water,” said Malmquist, gesturing.
Giulia arrived with a cup of water. Malmquist washed out his mouth and spat out the remaining vomit at his feet. “I’m hungry,” he said.
Giulia glanced inside the house, and said with a frown, “Vieni con me.”
She led him down the street. It was on a hillside. Soon the city’s vista came into view. “Holy shit!” said Malmquist. “Where are we?”
They stepped into a small eatery with an open front. Vats built into the counter sold rice porridge and corn porridge. Fried dough twists, boiled eggs, and pickled cabbage were also on offer. Malmquist ate ravenously.
“Come sei finito qua?” she asked him.
“I really have no idea what’s going on.”
When he was finished, she pointed toward the city and said, “C’e’ una stazione di polizia a Subura. Forse ti possono aiutare. Vedi quel quartiere nella vallata di la’ del Foro, sulla sinistra della collina dell’Esquilino? Chiedi a qualcuno quando arrivi la’.”
“Giulia, I don’t understand. Please help me and don’t leave me. Oh, god, you’re so lovely.” He passed his hand over her face and hair. She dropped her head shyly.
Just then an Asian male customer came up to them. He grabbed Giulia’s breasts and dislodged them from her tunic. “Wa! Zhen da!”
Malmquist moved toward the man but Giulia held him fast under the table. “Xiansheng, wo buzai zheli zuo gongzuo. Ta hui manzu nin. Feichang ganxie!” she calmly told the man, pointing to a young waitress who had pulled out her breasts and invited the man to the second floor. He followed her upstairs.
“Who the fuck is he?” said Malmquist.
“Non litigarci. Mai,” she said, wagging her finger. “Andiamo,” she stressed.
She paid for the food and led him briskly down the street toward the destination she had pointed out. “Ricorda la strada se dovessi aver bisogno di tornare per farti aituare da me.” Indicating the street they were on, she said, “Questa e’ Via Nova.”
They entered a public square with a tremendous display of classical architecture clad in white marble. Hundreds of people milled about, Caucasians in tunics and Asians in purple-fringed togas. She pointed out the Temple of Julius Caesar on their right and the vast Basilica Julia on their left. They turned and crossed the square along the Via Sacra to another vast building, the Basilica Aemilia. They walked around this building and into a compact square lined with columns, the Forum of Nerva. Exiting out the other end, they proceeded along the Clivus Argiletum, which descended into a dark, shabby neighborhood teeming with shops and alleyways, Suburra.
On one side of the street was a long masonry wall, punctuated by archways. One of these they entered. More uniformed Italians were coming and going from the precinct headquarters across a courtyard interior paved with cobblestones. Giulia consulted with a guard at the reception desk, and they were told to sit down and wait.
Some time later they were directed to a back room. They entered. A Black man in a toga was sitting at a desk adorned with a toy American flag. “Now who have we got here?” he said.
“Finally, someone who can speak English. Man, am I happy to see you. Now, would you please tell me how I wound up in this fake Ancient Rome?”
“You ain’t Italian? Where you from?”
“Chicago? How’d you get here? Ain’t no foreigners except Italians here.”
“Then who are you, may I ask?”
“The American Ambassador.”
“This is the American Embassy?”
“Hey, wait a minute. I’ve seen you before. You’re Leroy from the police station in Gary, Indiana.”
“You must be thinking of someone else. I ain’t seen you before.”
“I could swear it’s you. No, it’s really you.”
“Wrong person. Now what you doing here?”
“Why is the Embassy in a police station? Are there other embassies?”
“Only the Italian.”
“Italian? How could there be an Italian Embassy? We’re in Italy.”
“What made you think this is Italy? You in China.”
“What are all these Italians doing here then?’
“China! Well, how do I get out of here?”
“You a slave too.”
“I am not a slave.”
“You in New Rome and you honky, then you a slave.”
“Are there other Americans?”
“You the first I’ve seen. Where were you before you came here?”
“I was trying to escape from Gary to Chicago. And you were helping me!”
“You all mixed up, man. Who that woman slave you come here with? Can’t she help you?”
Malmquist turned to Giulia. She was gone.
“That’s right, she gone. And you know why she gone? You know why they done through with you? She told us what happened. You offended a retired Chinese court eunuch.”
“It was an accident. I was disoriented and sick to my stomach when they shoved me onto her naked. They almost executed me. But I didn’t do anything wrong.”
“You made her lose face. It don’t matter why it happened but it happened. That ain’t no ordinary eunuch. You know who Guo Meimei is up there on that Palatine Hill where you almost got yo head chopped off? Once you offend a Chinese, ain’t nobody gonna help you nohow.”
“A eunuch? I thought eunuchs were male.”
“She call herself female, she dress female, then she female.”
“The Palatine? The same topography as real Rome? They built all that so perfectly?”
“Down to the very inch. The Tiber too. They diverted another river nearby and carved it out. And they built the Aurelian Wall to keep all you slaves in.”
“How many slaves are there?”
“One million. Half a million Chinese. More during peak season, though most of the Chinese live here permanently and keep they own slaves.”
“Where did they get one million Italian slaves?”
“I mean how?”
“Heard they hired them all at first. Italy economy bad back then. Then once they got here, they took away their passports and phones and never pay them since, except maybe a few sesterces in tips they throw them for good behavior. Slaves ain’t got no web access here so no way to contact the outside world. And no countries dare mess with China no more. Anyway, most of the slaves used to it by now. They’ve been here twenty years. Some born here and already grown up. Don’t know anything else.”
“What year is it?”
“Same as New Gary.”
“Don’t you start having fantasies of escaping back to the US now. You better start worrying about finding gainful employment. They throw jobless slaves to the animals in the Colosseum.”
“As my country’s ambassador, you have an obligation to help out a fellow US citizen. I have no money, no passport.”
“You already forget no matter where you from a slave ain’t a citizen. Where you living now, since they kicked you out?”
“Why don’t you tell me!”
“Yep, you need a master to take you on and give you a pallet to sleep on and some food to eat.”
“Can you help me find one?”
“Can you at least direct to where I might find one?”
“Come to think of it, that balneum over there across the street, the manager slave he got beaten to death last week by some Chinese. Heard the slave boy helping him is struggling to operate the place. Maybe you can go ask him if he needs someone.”
“Why was he killed?”
“Why would I want to work there?”
“Look, I’m just helping you out.”
“What’s a balneum?”
“The local bathhouse.”
“Could you take me over there and introduce me? I don’t know any Italian and can’t explain myself.”
“I can’t, but I’ll have one of the guards send you over there.”
*. *. *
Forthcoming (summer 2017): The Kitchens of Canton