by Salvatore Difalco

Cousin Angelina set me up with Sardo, who fronted his family’s black market dealings with a flock of Merino sheep that reputedly produced the sweetest milk in the region. She said if I awoke early enough he’d pass by with his flock, take me to their grazing lands in the hills and make fresh ricotta for me. “You’ve never tasted anything like it,” she said. “Sweeter than ice cream.”

At dawn next morning, already roused by Sicilian roosters, I heard clanging. I jumped out of bed, dressed, and hurried out. Baaing yellowy sheep huddled around a small man in a tan berretto with sparse facial hair and vulpine eyes—Sardo. “Are you ready?” he asked. I nodded and followed him.

We climbed the road up the hill for several kilometers. A burnt orange band of sun rose in the east. Sardo carried a wooden staff, a tin cowbell, and a shoulder satchel. Now and then he poked a lagging lamb, or clanked the cowbell to spur the flock. “Do you like sheep?” he asked me. “Never thought about it,” I said. “I hate them,” he said.

As the sun heated up and my breathing grew labored, Sardo offered me a drink from a canvas canteen. It wasn’t water. Whatever it was burned going down. “It’ll lift you,” he said. After another sip, a mild euphoria washed over me. Continuing, we passed rich poppy fields patched with blazing yellow margaritas and crumbled stone structures. When we reached the ruins of an old farmhouse, Sardo herded the flock to the lush field surrounding it, much of it blue-flowered flax.

“You hate sheep?” I asked. Sardo checked me with his foxy eyes. “I don’t abuse them,” he said, “if that’s what you’re suggesting. But I’d rather be doing other things.” To my surprise, he produced a spliff from his satchel and lit it with a long match he struck against his boot heel. He hauled the spliff, exhaled a plume of smoke, and handed it to me. A few hacking pulls later, I returned it.

The sheep grazed, baaing and bleating, none sneaking off, good thing—feral dogs had been spotted in the hills. Vultures circled the limpid blue sky. The sun flexed. Sardo grinned with broken teeth. I smiled so hard my face hurt. “What about the ricotta?” I asked. “What about it?” he said. I liked fresh ricotta; I didn’t love it. But it was a thing in Sicily. Everyone went on about fresh ricotta this and fresh ricotta that. I wondered what kind of ricotta these pungent sheep actually produced.

“My family,” Sardo said, “are criminals. I’m also a criminal, but there are some things I won’t do. That’s why … um, ha.” He appeared to lose his train of thought. “I’m very sballato,” he said. I chuckled. I was also sballato—that is, high as a kite. The vultures circled. “What’s up with them?” I asked. Sardo shrugged. “Something’s going to die,” he said. “They have a nose for it. So do I. As we speak, I fear men will leap out from the field and machine gun me to death.”

I surveyed the landscape but saw no shady figures lurking, although a sniper could’ve easily camouflaged himself with sheepskin or a grass suit and shot us at will. “I swindled a prominent boss from another organization,” Sardo admitted without prodding. “Was it a lot?” I asked. “It wasn’t money,” he said, staring at me.

Time passed. The sheep munched away. The vultures patiently rode the thermals. Death delayed was breakfast unserved in their world. My own stomach growled as my buzz maintained. “Angelina couldn’t stop talking about your ricotta,” I said. Sardo tossed his head. “I’d have to milk one of the ewes,” he said. “Meh. The canna made me lazy.” And hungry, I wanted to say, but held my tongue.

Seconds later, Sardo hit the ground so abruptly, I thought he’d suffered a cardiac arrest or some kind of seizure. “Get down!” he whispered hoarsely, slapping the flattened flax. “Get down!” Heart in my throat, I dropped to the ground, wondering if his assassins had at last revealed themselves. We stayed down for a few tense minutes. Then Sardo rose to his knees and scanned the field. The danger had passed, apparently. I stood up and brushed off my trousers.

After a moment Sardo said, “I swindled the big boss, Don Onofrio, out of a valuable painting.” I asked the artist’s name. “I shouldn’t tell you,” he said. “But if I do, promise to tell no one.” I promised, knowing better than to do it lightly.

“The painting’s an early Renaissance work by Antonello da Messina,” Sardo said in hushed tones, eyes darting. I’d never heard of the guy. “One of Don Onofrio’s men found it inside an abandoned church in Enna,” Sardo continued, “covered in grime. Don Onofrio took it to an art restorer who happened to be a cousin of a cousin. Long story short, the painting Don Onofrio got back wasn’t the original.” I see, I thought, but had to restrain myself from bursting into laughter. It sounded preposterous. Sardo shot me a quick look and said nothing.

As my buzz wore off and my hunger intensified, the vultures descended, one by one. “Something died,” Sardo said. “Do you think it was one of the sheep?” I asked, concerned. “It happens,” he said. “Things die.”

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