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LABYRINTH

Gaither Stewart

157 pages

Author’s note:

This is a novel. It is the story of a young man and his dreams of coming to grips with his meaningless life. His name is Sebastian. The events take place in the labyrinthine Historic Center of Rome at the end of the II Millennium.  It begins with an event that shocks Sebastian out of his deep-seated hopelessness and urges him to search for his place in life through some heroic action. For if he vaunts his outsider status, he dreams of somehow of finding a way out of his labyrinth.

It is the story of one representative of the uprooted generations that began appearing throughout the world in great numbers after World War II. People with no sense of homeland. No sense of belonging. No sense of time. Past, present and future are elusive concepts for them. Unlike expatriates whose constant dream is to return home, the uprooted, the deracinated, the rootless, have no true concept of a native land. They integrate quickly in diverse countries and societies and they speak a language of placelessness, but ultimately they feel like outsiders everywhere. Neither foreigners nor natives, they are eternal hybrids. 

The story takes place against a background of the political terrorism that has plagued Italy and other countries in the aftermath of the explosions of 1968. Two terrorisms emerged in Italy, Germany and France: the left-wing terrorism of disillusioned young people who demand a real revolution to obtain ‘everything here and now’; the right-wing terrorism of the sons of European Fascism-Nazism who dream of the past. In most cases the terrorist organizations were eventually infiltrated and manipulated by secret services or became criminal associations. The events here are imaginary although former terrorists, romantic nostalgics like Sergio, and their heirs regularly raise their heads and dream of old glories.

It is also the story of the relationship between Sebastian and Luca, the former theoretician of left-wing terrorism who is above all part of Italian society and of his era. Each of them searches for sustenance in the other: Sebastian in his desire to emerge into the real world; Luca in his attempt to understand the internationalism he has always preached.

I began this novel in 1995 to tell the story of the rootless ones. Dissatisfied with the first draft, I rewrote the entire story the following year. That too I put aside when I left Italy for Mexico. Finally, toward the end of the year 2000, I rewrote the novel again, this time giving more importance to the Sebastian-Luca relationship and to the background of political unrest and the role of the secret services.

I believe it is an interesting story, a story worth telling. There are many Sebastian’s around. And more former and active terrorists than one could even imagine.


Chapter 1

On a September afternoon heavy under humid winds blowing northwards from the Sahara, Sebastian Stone was buying his ticket at the English-language cinema in an old quarter across the river when he heard gunshots. He rounded the corner on the run and stopped short alongside a crumpled body lying on the cobblestones. His first thought was that he had stumbled onto a film set. But then he saw the puddles of dark blood spreading over the stones.

He stared at the man standing some ten meters away, his legs spread, his chin squared, his head lowered. The big man was holding a pistol in two hands and pointing it at him.

I yelled halt but he didn't stop,” the vigilante shouted to the people gathered at the scene near the church of Santa Maria In Trastevere. “He robbed that girl over there.” He was yelling for everyone to hear, waving his pistol toward a blond girl in a skimpy dress standing near the church. “I saw him do it.”

Two seconds. The time to blink, and the boy was dead. Another purse-snatcher was stretched out on the stones next to his overturned motorbike.

"What the fuck do you want!" the policeman shouted, pointing his pistol at Sebastian and collecting his courage.

Sebastian’s eyes were riveted on the boy's body. It was beginning to shrink. A wave of nausea rushed over him. He felt the blood drain from his face and his stomach turn inside out.

He stared down at the gray face of the dark-haired boy lying on his back. His mouth was open as if to cry. The red puddle surrounding him was spreading over the stones toward Sebastian’s dirty boots. He looked so terribly alone.

“Did you see something?” snarled the policeman. His broad face had reddened and his eyes bulged as he moved forward, now with a hint of swagger. Sebastian’s sloppy dress and dirty blond hair too long for the policeman's tastes seemed to manifest that he was accomplice-ally-friend of the dead scum on the stones. Scowling under his dark eyebrows and his hairy chest exposed under a tan shirt opened half way down, the cop looked like a cornered wild boar.

Sebastian stared at his assailant's hands. He was now holding the pistol in his right hand while with the fingers of his left hand spread wide he had cupped his crotch in a half lascivious, half child-like gesture.

“What're you gaping at, ragazzo? Move on. Get out of here, or I'll take you in. You're obstructing justice.”

Obstructing justice? He was just going to the movie. He didn't even want to be a spectator. The maddened cop now dominated the piazza. Sebastian backtracked to the corner, his heart pounding, his face red from agitation. It was those assassins hands that were so terrible. And the reddened Sanpietrini cobblestones.

Betranced bystanders stood motionless. Silence reigned. He took one last look toward the scene, turned, and went back to the Cinema Pasquino. That unmistakable metallic tat-tat-tat was still resounding in his brain. The boy's gray face was before him. Red blood. Dark death red on the gray-black stones. Blood on stones. Blood and stones.

On the piazza, darkness. In the cinema, blackness like the death outside. Black like the cobbles. Black, he thought, like the spectral silhouettes of heads stationary against the rising and dimming lights from the screen. Pale strange faces along the back row were motionless. Laughter and back slapping on the screen. The senseless film before him, its frames edited, cut, ordered, registered – while they were carrying away the frail body in a black sack. The kid was no more. On his motorbike one minute, the next sinking into Rome’s black stones. Into a stone grave. No more worries about his daily dose. No more hunting for victims, no more fear and terror and pounding heart. His life had been nothing. His death had no significance. Murdered for snatching a worthless necklace from the neck of a blond tourist.

Time had stopped. He knew he had stood at the center of time. That instant of the flash of the gun was an eternity. Yet it was nothing.

The next afternoon he retraced his steps. Again he stood where he had stood under the cop's threats. He circled the spot the body had lain. Nothing of the boy remained, not even traces of blood on the dirty cobbles. He had vanished. Yet for a moment the outline of the crumpled body on the stones flashed through his mind as in isolated, slow motion film frames. The way one thin arm lay crossed over his chest, his polo shirt blood-soaked, his hair long and curly. For that moment the memory, the image of the memory - or the memory of the image - was his.

Two days later he was back in Trastevere, sitting on the shaded terrace at the café on the opposite side of the piazza, facing the portico of the church he had always loved. He was reading clippings from the Messaggero and La Repubblica about the shooting of a 16-year old purse-snatcher, a Trastevere boy named Pierluigi.

Looking toward the death site, squinting his eyes and trying to conjure up again the outline of the body, he started: the elusive image of the boy on the stones was fading. Nearly gone. Again he had been deceived by slippery memory.

The big policeman was well known on the square, he read. The cop was known as a bully here in Trastevere where he had grown up. Like Pierluigi. Probably they had known each other, the executioner and his victim. One reporter wrote that the policeman’s elementary school teachers had predicted that that boy would become a criminal. To impress people in the café where Sebastian was now sitting he always carried his pistol in his belt, pulling it out and waving it around like a flag. Had Pierluigi seen it too, the pistol that killed him? 

The wary waiter on the café terrace shrugged his shoulders and refused to comment on the cop's character. “Non lo conosco,” he lied. I don't know him.

“See nothing, hear nothing, know nothing,” Sebastian murmured. Rigid, motionless, his lips pursed, he contemplated the Madonna mosaic on the facade of Rome's oldest Christian church on the opposite side of the piazza - and he felt deluded by her promise.

All those times he had sat around the fountain in the middle of this piazza, joking with the others, smoking pot and drinking beer, the Madonna and the enigmatic women carrying lamps in their outstretched hands frescoed on the wall over the portico and the row of statues of cardinals along the edge of the overhead balcony had promised him their sacred protection: shelter for him and the neo-hippies and the drug addicts who congregated at the fountain, for the vagabonds who lived on the piazza, for the black Africans who bought and sold anything, for the gays of the quarter, even those with AIDS, who mingled promiscuously with the others, for the furious motorcyclists, and for the other outsiders who met here under the shadow of the ancient Romanesque bell tower. Superstitions, lingering Catholic culture, black magic? They had believed, Pierluigi and all those disparate members of the motley group, that for the outcast Piazza Santa Maria di Trastevere was the safest spot in all of Rome. A haven, a refuge.

We all deserve one, a vagabond philosopher from Turin preached to the others. A place to pull ourselves together, to find ourselves again.

Even though Rome is not a poetic city, this piazza had its poetry - like many of the city's singular squares. Too ribald, too crass, Rome is too cynical to be poetic, too aggressive and too menefreghista, devil-may-care. Too greedy for poetry.

Unlike grandiose Paris with its unbounded perspectives and panoramas, Sebastian’s Rome was tight and closed, mysterious and arcane. Its short streets, narrow and dark, suddenly, miraculously, unfolding onto magnificent intimate piazzas, each secluded and contained. In Rome, from one instant to the next, you step from a cobbled alley, twisting and curving, black and sunless, onto a dazzling piazza bathed in sunshine - each time you wonder where it materialized from. The piazza! Where he'd learned to ride bikes and motor scooters. Where the kids of the quarter brawl and love.

Each piazza like an inviting salon. Protective like a homey oasis. A zona franca, a free zone, for the little man in opposition to caesars and popes and foreign oppressors. Where secrets abound, while everything is hidden from the eye until it leaps out to astonish you.

Even if feminine, Rome is not delicate. More than indifferent and oblivious, she's hard, brutal, cruel. Hard like the stones from her subsoil, hard like her travertine stone and the volcanic tufa of her great palazzos and the secular cobbles of her streets, maybe she is a street-wise transvestite.

The tragedy here, Sebastian came to realize as he reconstructed the drama over and over, was not only that of Pierluigi, but of the stupid cop: he wasn't just cruel but also brutal. He'd wanted the sensation of killing. Now he would feel the passion of that instant the rest of his life. The boy was his sacrificial victim; he died in vain.

“While I failed miserably.” 

“How could I just go to the movie afterwards as if nothing extraordinary had happened? So what if I reported it as a murder at police headquarters? What did I expect anyway? A reward? They just buried my charge in their files. I played no role at all. Not even as a witness.”


About the author:

Gaither Stewart left journalism three years ago in order to write fiction full-time. Originally from Asheville, North Carolina, he has lived most of his life in Europe, chiefly in Germany and Italy. For many years he was the Italian correspondent of the Rotterdam daily newspaper, ALGEMEEN DAGBLAD. His has been a varied life: from university studies in political science and Slavistics in the United States and Germany, to intelligence officer in Europe, to field correspondent for European and American radios, to public relations for Italian corporations, to full correspondent for a major European newspaper. His journalistic stories have appeared in the press Of West and East Europe. Now during the last year his fiction has appeared In a number of English language literary publications, including the SouthernCross Review. His first book, "The Russian Flask", is also on the SCR e-book list. Gaither lives with his wife, Milena, in the hills of north Rome.


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