Excerpt: After the War

AfterTheWar_JKCheney (1)Chapter 1

 

Friday, 18 June 1920, Lisboa

THE CAFÉ MARTINHO DA ARCADA at the Praça do Commercio had a sign in their window, advertising that Serafim Palmeira would be singing there that evening. As João da Silva had actually heard one of the other street workers speak of her lovely, mournful voice, he’d made up his mind that he would spend a few of his hard earned mil-reís and go hear her. So, after a long day of working on a mosaic on Santa Augusta Street, he returned to his tiny rented room in the Barrio Alto, cleaned up as best he could and dressed in his Sunday finest. Then he made the trek back down to the Baixa, the city’s modern downtown.

He was learning to love Lisboa. The night was sultry, with the scent of the sea drifting in from the mouth of the slow-moving Tagus. The sky was clear, although the stars seemed dim next to the bright shine of the City of Light. At night the Baixa glowed with electric streetlamps. Pedestrians in fine garb walked along the street, the cheerful chatter of groups distracting João as he walked past, hands shoved in his pockets, trying not to see others’ lax handling of their handbags and wallets.

Portugal felt like home to him, but it was in places like this where he was most alone. He had no one to walk with, no one to talk to. He had no past, and couldn’t seem to trust others.

There was still much in life to enjoy. Once he’d reached the café, he joined the press of bodies near the bar to order a Vinho Verde, and then stood against the wall with those waiting to hear the visiting singer. At the moment, a man sat in the corner, playing the twelve-stringed guitar, the tune speaking of loss and pain. It felt familiar to João, the way everything about sorrow resonated with him. He’d often wondered if that was why he loved fado—the music of love and loss.

He knew loss, if nothing else.

Another man, not as well bathed, and reeking of onions, bumped João’s shoulder, trying to claim another space against the wall. He stood so close that João felt the man’s wallet in a jacket pocket. He could lift it out if he chose.

He was looking at the interloper when the singer walked to the chair next to the guitarist. When João turned back, Serafim Palmeira sat there, her slim figure wrapped in an old fashioned costume, a white cotton shirt and black skirt, with a simple black shawl draped about her shoulders. Her hair was short, in the current fashion, with inky black curls. One pale hand lay atop her shawl, the other in her lap, the webbing between her fingers barely visible from where he stood across the hall.

He might like fado, but this was why he’d come to see her. She was a sereia.

The sereia didn’t come to Lisboa—they feared the city was cursed—but supposedly Miss Palmeira was a Christian like João and not given to superstition.

He sipped at his wine, eyes drifting closed as she sang her first notes.

Her voice was soft but carried throughout the long café’s hall, such yearning in it that tears stung in João’s eyes. She sang of lost love, of losing her man, something she knew despite her youth. She couldn’t be more than twenty, but it was said she’d lost her husband in the Great War. The pain in her voice was clear.

That song ended, and she promptly launched into another. João found himself staring at her, unsure when he’d opened his eyes. Her face was lowered, her wide dark eyes fixed on the café’s tiled floor. Her shawl had slipped a bit, and her gill slits showed on the side of her neck, further proof that she wasn’t human. If she was using her call to make her song more poignant, João couldn’t tell, but he doubted she needed that magic.

Her eyes lifted then as she sang of the beauty of the Golden City, her home, and for the first time she gazed out over her audience. Tears glistened in her dark eyes as she sang of the anguish of wanting to be home, but not wanting to be there alone. Her eyes drifted across the mass of lower mortals by the café’s door.

And she stopped singing, one webbed hand pressed to her heart. She looked . . . shocked.

The crowd went silent, all aware something had gone awry.

She stepped down from the dais and darted toward the café’s door, as if she had to escape. She cried a name as she pelted across the floor, but when she neared the door, she veered aside, slipping around one of the tables and nearly knocking an old man onto the floor. She didn’t even apologize, but strove forward, pushing through the crowd of men in her desperation to reach . . .

Me.

João wasn’t sure whether to run or not. Her eyes were fixed on his, confusion in them.

“Alejandro!” she cried again. Enough men cleared aside that she could grab the lapels of João’s tatty jacket. “Alejandro. What. . . ?”

And then she swooned.

Unable to do anything less, João caught her in his arms. He gazed down at the young woman’s pale face. He didn’t recognize her. Not at all. Did she know him? Or had she, in her sorrow, convinced herself he was someone she’d known?

The guitarist had pursued the young woman across the hall, an older man with streaks of gray in his black hair. He regarded João with equal disbelief. “Jandro? What are you doing here?”

João stared. “Do you know me, sir?”

The man seemed startled. “Do you not recognize me, Jandro?”

For a split second, João’s head swam, and he thought he might swoon as well. Did he know these people? He gazed down at the girl in his arms, whose eyes began to flutter. “I have no memory, sir,” he told the older man, glancing up. “I was injured in the war and have no memory of anything before that.”

The man reached across the girl’s body to cup João’s cheek like he was family. “You are Alexandre Ferreira, my daughter’s husband.”

His brain supplied the information that Alexandre was a Portuguese form of Alejandro, but neither name meant anything to him. He turned his eyes back down to meet those of Serafim Palmeira, who pulled away to gaze at him, tears running down her pale cheeks. How could I possibly have forgotten being married to a girl like this?

“Alejandro,” she whispered, laying her webbed hands against his cheeks. “I knew you weren’t dead. I knew when they told me that . . . it was a lie.”

If she’d been alone, he would have thought her insane, but the man with her—surely her father—seemed to believe her claim. A father wouldn’t support her in madness, would he?

João glanced up, suddenly aware of the commotion all about them, people staring and someone with a camera trying to take a photograph in the darkened café. He raised his hand to shield his face just before the brilliant flash. I need to get out of this place. He drew away from the young woman’s grip, but she grabbed his lapels again. “Miss,” he insisted, “if you want to talk to me, it should be elsewhere.”

“Alejandro,” she began.

“I don’t know you,” he said firmly. “I don’t recognize you.”

Her expression went stricken.

“Jandro,” the older man said, reaching past his daughter to grasp João’s elbow, “come with us backstage. We can talk privately there.”

He could toss off the man’s grasp, but something in the older man’s face pleaded for him to stay, to talk to them. Ignoring his instincts, João went with them, behind the stage where someone from the café’s staff was apologizing to the crowd for the interruption. Down a small hallway, a single door led into a sitting area.

The room was shabby compared to the rest of the café. João felt less out of place there. The young woman, Serafim, clung to his arm fiercely as if she never intended to let him go. João found himself gazing at the webbed fingers on his sleeve and realized he’d been staring. “Pardon me,” he said quickly, flushing.

She didn’t seem to grasp why he’d apologized.

“Please, sit down,” her father said.

João complied, and the girl surprised him by settling on the floor next to his knees. She laid her head on his lap, weeping softly again. João set his hand atop her head, the black curls under his fingers not familiar at all. Her hair wasn’t short after all, he noted, but pinned up in back. He wondered what it would look like down around her shoulders. His heart beat harder at that thought, but he forced his attention back to her father. “Sir, I don’t know either of you.”

The man dragged over a wooden chair and sat facing João. Apparently the sight of his daughter draped over a stranger’s legs didn’t concern him. João kept his surprise to himself. He was the one at a disadvantage here. There was a chance these two were exactly who they claimed.

If only his mind would supply an answer . . . yet it remained annoyingly blank.

“My name is Marcos Davila,” the man said. “And this is my eldest daughter, Serafim Palmeira. Do you not recognize either of us, Jandro?”

“No,” he repeated. “I was wounded in the war. I have no memories.” Why did he have to keep repeating that?

“We were told you were killed at La Lys,” Davila said, “but the body returned to us could not have been yours. We hoped . . . Joaquim was sure they’d made a mistake.”

Serafim rubbed her face against João’s thighs, distracting him. It was an innocent gesture, yet appallingly familiar. Then again, she thought she was his wife, didn’t she?

“Why do you say it could not have been my body?” he asked Davila.

Davila shook his head wearily. “The body was terribly burned all over, save the bottom of the man’s feet. Those feet were human.”

João licked his lips. Davila didn’t have webbed hands. That didn’t necessarily mean he was human. “Are you claiming that I’m not human?”

“You’re half human, Jandro,” Davila said, “like me. You have the markings of a sereia, though. That alone should have told the army they were wrong; but, apparently, it wasn’t on your records.”

João took a deep breath. Suddenly the chance that this man was telling the truth rose. Unlike Serafim, Alejandro had no webbing between his fingers and no gill slits on the side of his neck. He’d decided to keep the inhuman coloration of the lower half of his body hidden, secret since it was one thing that would help him identify his family. That wasn’t difficult, as he merely needed to keep his clothes and shoes on.

“Please, Alejandro,” Serafim begged, “please say you know me.”

He gazed down at her, his lips pressed together. He desperately wanted to recognize this beautiful girl. “I’m sorry, Miss Serafim. I don’t.”

She pushed herself away from him and rose to her feet, crossing her arms over her chest. “No. I won’t accept that. You know me, Alejandro. You came back to me, and I will not let you go again.”

Her sudden vehemence startled him. She didn’t stamp her foot, but he suspected she was close to that point. “Miss, I . . .”

“Father, will you leave us for a moment?”

Davila opened his mouth, but shrugged and walked out of the sitting room, leaving João at his daughter’s mercy.

As soon as the door closed, the girl flung herself into João’s arms, her lips pressing hard against his as if she intended to devour him. He didn’t know what else to do, so he set his hands on her waist and held her away from him.

“You cannot say you don’t know my kiss,” she said, chin firming as she met his gaze.

Actually, I can. That had been no more familiar than anything else about her.

She was lovely, though, and he liked the feel of her in his arms. There hadn’t been a woman since the war; he hadn’t known who he was and feared he had a wife and five children somewhere. He certainly wouldn’t dislike it if Serafim Palmeira turned out to be that wife.

“Should I prove it?” she asked tartly. “Your dorsal stripe turns dark blue at the edges, not like mine, which is pure black. The edging is darker than mine, too, almost a navy blue, and its point extends right up underneath . . .”

She went on to describe the inhuman coloration of his privates with a level of detail that João suspected could only come from firsthand knowledge. For a moment it was hard to breathe, embarrassment warring with surprise for control of his reaction. If this girl was his wife, she was shockingly forward. Did he like that about her? Or was it not forwardness if she was truly his wife?

He took a step back, trying to think. Did all sereia have the same markings? Could she just have generalized and guessed correctly?

She pursued him and her hand touched the inside of his thigh. “Do you have a scar here? You were hit by shrapnel in Angola and were still healing the last time we were together.”

He did have a scar there, exactly where her fingers touched. And as it was close to the area she’d been describing in detail a moment before, her gesture gained his body’s full attention. Her hand moved slightly, and this time when she kissed him, he was no longer in a mood to escape. He pulled her closer. Her arms wrapped tightly around him, the kiss deepening into something wholly inappropriate if she wasn’t his wife.

A knock on the door warned him a second before the door opened. Her father stepped back into the room. João—he’d known that wasn’t his name, but it would surely take time to get used to any other—João turned Serafim loose and prayed to God that his arousal would subside before the girl’s father noticed. Fortunately, she stood between him and Davila.

He’d always believed that if he found someone from his past, he would recall everything. That he would know in his heart. Yet to know him as well as she did, Serafina must have been his lover at some point. Even so, there was nothing in him that recognized her, and he had a feeling she didn’t want to hear him say that again.

“I think we should go back to the hotel, Father,” she said. “Alejandro and I need to talk. Can you make my apologies to the manager here?”

Her father’s eyes drifted past her to meet his, as if to ask whether the plan met with his approval. João—Alejandro—nodded. Or was it Alexandre? Why would he have a Portuguese name and a Spanish name?

Serafim reached back and wrapped her hand around his—no lacing of fingers because of her webbing. A moment later she was hauling him through the main room of the café straight out onto a street where she hailed a cab. Her father joined them at the edge of the sidewalk, and soon they were at the Hotel Avenida Palace, a place far more opulent than he would have been able to afford himself.

Before her father could protest, Serafim grabbed his hand, dragged him upstairs into a room, and closed the door behind them. João—Alejandro—barely had time to glance around before she turned on him. “Where have you been?” she demanded.

Finally, she was going to listen to him. “I was in a hospital in France for a long time.” It hadn’t actually been a hospital, but a sanitarium for veterans, a place for those men driven past reason by the war. “No one knew who I was. They thought I must be French, but . . .”

“Why would they think you French?” she asked, looking offended.

“Because they spoke to me in French, and I answered them so.” It hadn’t taken him long to decide that although he was moderately fluent in it, French wasn’t his mother tongue.

“Why were you in a French hospital?”

“I assume I was in France for the war,” he told her. “I’ve no idea.”

“Then why didn’t you come home?”

Is she always this difficult? “Because I didn’t know where home was,” he snapped. “If I’d known where to go, don’t you think I would have done so years ago?”

Tears started in her eyes again. She came and put her arms around him. “I’m so sorry, Alejandro.”

She raised her face to his, and this time he kissed her before she could kiss him.