The world is a curving wall of gray cement. The world has muffled sounds and echoes. The world is a circle two times the length of his outstretched arms. The first thing the boy learned in that circular world were his new names. He has two. Son is the name he prefers. He has a right to it when he does the right things, when he obeys, when his thoughts are clear and quick. Otherwise, his name is Beast. When he’s called Beast, the boy is punished. When he’s called Beast, the boy goes cold and hungry. When he’s called Beast, the circular world stinks.
Punishment is hard in the circular world. Implacable and precise.
If Son doesn’t want to become Beast, he has to remember the right place for the things he’s been given and take good care of them. The bucket for his excrement and urine must always be hanging from the beam, ready to be emptied. The pitcher for the water must always stand at the center of the table. The bed must always be clean and tidy, with the covers nicely tucked in. The tray for his meals must always sit next to the hatch.
The hatch is the center of the circular world. The boy fears it and venerates it as a capricious deity. The hatch can open suddenly or remain shut for days at a time. The hatch can give him food, clean clothing, books, and pencils, or it can dispense punishment.
Mistakes are always punished. For minor errors, the punishment is hunger. For bigger mistakes, there’s atrocious heat or cold. One time he was so hot that he simply stopped sweating. He fell to the cement, convinced he was about to die. He was pardoned with a stream of cold water. He was Son once again. Now he could drink again and clean the bucket, abuzz with flies. Punishment is hard in the circular world. Implacable and precise.
That’s what he always believed until the day he discovered that the circular world is imperfect. The circular world has a crack. The length of his forefinger, the crack appeared in the wall, right where the wooden beam the bucket hangs from fits into the wall. The boy didn’t dare look closely at the crack for weeks. He knew it was there, it impinged on the boundaries of his consciousness, scorching it like flame. The boy knew that looking at the crack was a Forbidden Thing, because in the circular world everything that isn’t explicitly allowed is forbidden. But one night the boy gave in to his impulse. He transgressed for the first time in a long time, the unchanging time of his circular world. He did it cautiously, slowly, planning out each move in advance. He got out of bed and pretended he’d fallen.
Stupid Beast. Incompetent Beast. He pretended he had to lean against the wall to support himself and for just an instant he brought his left eye into contact with the crack. He didn’t see anything, only the darkness, but the enormity of what he’d done made him sweat in fear for hours. For hours he expected punishment and pain. He awaited cold and hunger. But nothing happened. This was an extraordinary surprise. In those hours of waiting, which eventually became a sleepless night and a feverish day, the boy understood that not everything he does can be seen. Not everything he does is weighed and judged. Not everything he does is rewarded or punished. He felt lost and alone, in a way he hadn’t experienced since his very first days in the circular world, when the memory of Before was still strong, when the walls didn’t exist and he had another name, different from Beast or Son. The boy felt his certainties shatter, and so he dared to take another look. The second time he kept his eye glued to the crack for nearly a whole second. The third time he looked for a full breath. And he saw. He saw the green. He saw the blue. He saw a cloud that looked like a pig. He saw the red roof of a house.
Now the boy is looking again, balanced on tiptoe, his hands spread out against the cold cement to support himself. There’s something moving outside, in a light that the boy imagines to be the light of dawn. It’s a dark silhouette, and it grows bigger and bigger as it comes closer. Suddenly the boy realizes he’s making the most serious mistake, that he’s committing the most unforgivable transgression.
The man walking over the meadow is the Father, and he’s looking at him. As if he’d read his thoughts, the Father speeds up his pace. He’s coming for him.
And he has a knife in his hand.
– II –
The Stone Circle
The horror began at five in the afternoon on a Saturday in early September, with a man in shorts waving his arms, trying to flag down a car. The man had a T-shirt draped over his head to ward off the hot sun and a pair of ravaged flip-flops on his feet.
Watching him as he pulled the police car over to the side of the county road, the older officer classified the man in shorts as a “nutcase.” After seventeen years on the force and several hundred winos and other delirious citizens calmed into docility with various carrots and sticks, he could spot a nutcase at a glance. And this was one, beyond the shadow of a doubt.
The two officers got out of the car, and the man in shorts crouched down, mumbling something. He was wrecked and dehydrated, and the younger officer gave him a drink of water from the bottle he kept in the car door, ignoring his fellow officer’s look of disgust.
At that point the words of the man in shorts became comprehensible. “I’ve lost my wife,” he said. “And my son.” His name was Stefano Maugeri, and that morning he’d gone with his family for a picnic, a few miles farther up, in the Vivaro mountain meadows. They’d eaten an early lunch and he’d fallen asleep, lulled by the breeze. When he’d woken back up, his wife and son were gone.
For three hours, he’d moved in a circle, searching for them without success, until he found himself walking along the side of the county road, completely lost and on the verge of sunstroke. The older officer, whose confidence in his first impression was beginning to waver, asked why he hadn’t called his wife’s cell phone, and Maugeri replied that in fact he had, but he’d heard only the click of the voice mail, over and over until the battery of his cell phone ran out.
The older officer looked at Maugeri with a little less skepticism. He’d racked up quite a collection of emergency calls concerning wives who’d gone missing, taking the children with them, but none of those callers had dumped their spouse in the middle of a mountain meadow. Not still alive, anyway.
The officers took Maugeri back to his starting point. There was no one there. The other day-trippers had all gone home, and his gray Fiat Bravo sat alone on the lane, not far from a magenta tablecloth strewn with leftover food and an action figure of Ben 10, a young superhero with the power to transform himself into an array of alien monsters.
At that point, Ben 10 would probably have turned into a giant horsefly and flown over the meadows in search of the missing wife and son, but the two policemen could only radio in to headquarters and turn in the alarm, triggering one of the most spectacular search-and-rescue operations the meadows had witnessed in recent years.
That was when Colomba got involved. It was her first day back at work after a long break, and it would be, beyond the shadow of a doubt, one of her worst.