Malmquist lifted his head off the floor in a daze as he regained consciousness. “Where am I?”
“E tu chi sei?” a man whispered to him in the darkness.
“Who are you?”
“Sei lo schiavo nuovo?”
“What language are you speaking?”
“Che lingua stai parlando?”
“Do you speak English?”
“Inglese? No, non parlo Inglese.”
“Where am I? Chicago? What happened?”
“Di dove sei? Non sapevo che voleva uno schiavo nuovo.”
“I don’t understand you. Are you Italian?”
“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. Just outside the room 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. “Oh Stefano, di dov’e’ sto tipo?”
The man peered in at Malmquist. “E che ne so.”
“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 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.”
“No,” she said, gesturing across the atrium to a large closed doorway. “E’ per la Padrona.”
As she knelt before them on all fours, her tunic dipped open. The atrium light shone through it from behind and revealed at a glance long hanging breasts and pubic bush, and across the atrium before the door opposite, a man sleeping on a pallet, 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 to move closer to her. “Vicino!”
She opened her legs and handed him the towel, and he wiped her down. She emptied a few drops from one of the vials on her fingers. “Questo è l’olio di rugosa,” she said, placing her fingertips under his nose before transferring the oil to her genitals. “È importante spalmare dall’alto in basso, non viceversa. Ora, questo è l’olio di reseda. Solo un poco!” She instructed him to apply the other scent to her vulva, perineum and anus, in that order. 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 before across the atrium signaled with his finger to keep the noise down.
“I don’t understand,” said Malmquist. He rubbed his stomach. “I’m really hungry.”
Giulia left and returned a minute later with a plate of boiled chicken feet. “Okay?”
“What’s this?” he said. He began chewing on them, retracting his lips in disgust. The others went back to sleep. He finished the plate and slept too.
He was nudged awake at dawn by Stefano. “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. The man guarding the mysterious room received them and opened the door, pushing Malmquist inside. It was a luxurious room, with its own windows and the walls splashed with colorful frescoes. There were ivory-inlaid wardrobes and bench chests with gilded feet carved into lion’s paws. A huge bed took up the center of the room and was raised so high a footstool was at its side for climbing onto it. The bed 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, nucai, kuaidian’er. Deng shenme ne? Mali’er de!” snapped a voice from the bed.
Malmquist climbed onto the bed and found a middle-aged woman of Asian race.
She sat up at the sight of Malmquist. “Ba maojin na guolai—E? Ni na’er lai de? Wo zenme mei jian guo ni?”
“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 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 and led him back to the other room to be confined. Stefano summoned Giulia, while the Mistress’s guard dashed out of the house. Giulia and several female servants ran into her room to attend to the emergency.
“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 implored, “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, Giulia 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 prostrated himself in front of the Mistress.
“Wo yuanliang ni,” she said, adding with a laugh, “Hao la. Wo hen manyi. Buguo, zai yi buneng zai er. Hao, women xianzai jiushi pengyou le!” To her guard she said, “Rang ta gundan.”
The soldiers escorted Malmquist out of the house, deposited him on the street and walked off.
“What’s going on?” 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. “I’m hungry,” he said.
Giulia glanced inside the house and back toward the street. “Vieni con me,” she said impatiently.
He followed her down the street. It was on a hillside, and soon the city’s vista came into view. “Holy shit! Where are we?”
They stepped into a small eatery with an open front. Vats built into the counter sold porridges of rice and corn, along with fried dough twists, boiled eggs, and pickled cabbage. 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,” she calmly told the man, “wo buzai zheli zuo gongzuo. Ta hui manzu nin. Feichang ganxie!” She pointed to a young waitress who had pulled out her breasts and beckoned 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 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.
Along one side of the street was a long masonry wall, punctuated by archways. One of these they entered. More Roman-styled Italian soldiers 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 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?”
“Shouldn’t this be the Consulate? I thought embassies would be in the capital.”
“They can put the Embassy anywhere they like, and they put us here. Ain’t no U.S. Consulates in China. Only me.”
“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 countries’ embassies?”
“Only the Italian.”
“Italian? How could there be an Italian Embassy? We’re in Italy.”
“Italy? What made you think this Italy?”
“What are all these Italians doing here then?”
“They slaves. You in China.”
“China! Well, how do I get out?”
“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 your 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.”
“Wait. The Palatine? How could it be the Palatine if we’re in China? It has the same topography as real Rome? They built all this 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 masters. 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 after they arrived they got a big surprise. They had a job all right. Worked they asses off, but passports all confiscated and the only salary any of them ever seen was a few sesterces in tips for good behavior. Phones confiscated too. No way to contact the outside world, no way to go home. No countries dare mess with China no more, and Italy can’t help them. 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 nothing 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 no 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 need 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 get one of the guards to take you there.”
* * *
Forthcoming (summer 2017): The Kitchens of Canton