In the elegant Piazza Navona in the center of the city of Rome, a quartet of enormous, muscular men in scant garments majestically twine about an Egyptian obelisk. They are river gods — the magnificent Ganges of Asia, the wide Danube of Europe, the endless Nile of Africa, and the powerful Rio de la Plata of America.
Tourists cluster about the fountain, snapping photos, shading their eyes from the bright Italian sun and chattering in as many languages as the ancient capital of an empire has ever known. But the gods are inured to gawking and conversations. Since the seventeenth century they’ve been imprisoned here in stone.
But, finally… they’ve had enough. Unbeknownst to all who gaze upon their massive musculature, they’re not actually there! While their stone shells bask in a Mediterranean glow, the gods themselves have traveled northwest to a cooler clime, to another bustling city that is nearly as old as Rome…
They have come to Lady B’s ballroom.
How do I know this? Well, I’m looking right at them. And I’m not the only one.
Lady B: Miss Ashe, you invited four huge, naked men to my ball.
Not entirely naked. And I didn’t precisely invite them. I was just looking through some photos I took in Rome a few years ago.
Lady B: Photos?
Um. Little paintings.
Lady B: That’s all? You were merely studying paintings?
Well… Er… Maybe not? At the same time I may have been thinking about… well… you know, (mumbling swiftly) the vast breadth of the British Empire. (deep breath) It’s kind of a habit of mine. Anyway, they just showed up!
Lady B: But why here, dear gel?
It’s possible I was thinking about my latest book too. You know, the hero, Ben, is part Indian, though from quite a few miles south of the Ganges. But the book I’m copyediting now is occupying my thoughts too lately, When a Scot Loves a Lady. My Scottish hero spent a few years tracking along the Ganges on a secret mission for the king.
Lady B: I do admire a man of action.
Oh, me too. That sort of lifestyle tones a gentleman’s muscles remarkably well, if you know what I mean.
Lady B: Naturally.
And speaking of muscles, these guys are nearly naked because they’re gods.
Lady B: Gods or no, they are shockingly underclad. (looking the Nile up and down) I approve. You gentlemen are welcome in my ballroom.
Ganges bows augustly, his beard flowing and his long oar clicking on the floor.
PLATA: (one hand in the lobster patties plate, the other pushing Albert away) What’s a ballroom?
DANUBE: This is a ballroom, you barbarian. A chamber in which ladies and gentlemen dance—the waltz, if they are civilized.
NILE: You Europeans always imagine you have a monopoly on civilization. Egyptians were building pyramids while you people were still walking around on your knuckles.
GANGES: Neither of you is correct. (Note: Ganges has this sort of James Earl Jones-esque voice. Really nice. Everybody stops to listen.) In this century Britain is busily conquering my fertile continent and each of yours. With each victory, another ballroom is erected, another drawing room decorated, another tea table set for ladies wearing puffed sleeves and carrying parasols.
PLATA: Well look who’s the culture expert?
GANGES: In this decade, Danube, the waltz is not universally accepted.
Lady B: It is in this ballroom!
DANUBE: We Hungarians are always ahead of our time. (glancing at the refreshment table) Is that goulash?
Lady B: Good heavens, no.
NILE: You’re all pathetically behind the times. My pharaohs were posing for portraits while Plata’s people were still swinging from trees.
DANUBE: It’s true, Americans are backward. But don’t you get all high and mighty. Egypt was conquered by Rome, too, and America never was.
NILE: (mumbling) Well, we’re a lot closer to Italy, and ancient navigation being what it was…
PLATA: Yeah, Nile. We’ve all been hanging out around a giant phallus for centuries because a Roman emperor conquered Egypt and had all your monuments shipped back to Italy.
(me, in a whisper to Lady B) Come to think of it, I just finished writing a half-Egyptian hero, a pirate known as the Pharaoh. So maybe that’s the reason—
GANGES: Gentlemen, may we return to the reason for our visit to this place?
PLATA: So we can ogle the pretty girls?
DANUBE: The American has a point.
NILE: Ogling is for amateurs. We Egyptians were sculpting portraits of goddesses when you were all still fumbling for your di—
Drawers! Fumbling for their drawers, right, Nile? Heh.
Lady B: (eyes twinkling) Young man, in my ballroom we won’t have you hiding your face. Ladies must see a man’s eyes to know if he is a rakish sort or not.
I don’t think he has a choice, Lady B. The designer, Bernini, put that cloth over his face to show that Europeans hadn’t yet discovered the source of the Nile.
Lady B: Ah, the whimsy of artists. Then I daresay we must be content with the parts that are showing.
It’s really a shame.
GANGES: Ladies, my fellow river gods and I have come here today not upon whim. Rather, we were mystically conveyed. For, just as we four connect the seas of the world, so too does this ballroom — peopled by the wealthy and powerful of London — connect the oceans and continents. Britain’s empire will soon be as great as Rome’s ever was.
NILE: (muttering) Egypt’s empire lasted longer.
DANUBE: You’re a pompous ass, Ganges. Look around you. Ladies don’t care about empires—
(me, sputtering) I beg your pardon?
DANUBE: They care about handsome gentlemen.
Well, that’s true.
DANUBE: And as I’m the handsomest and the most gentlemanly of us four, they’re all looking at me.
PLATA: (elbowing Nile in the ribs) So much for Mr. Civilized, huh?
DANUBE: I’ve no doubt these ladies can sense breeding and culture as well.
Lady B: Don’t be absurd, young man. They are looking at your legs and hastily donned loincloth.
DANUBE: It’s not a loincloth. It’s a drape.
(me, nodding to Lady B) And his back. However totally wrong he is about some ladies, he’s got really great back muscles.
Lady B: Wonderfully well formed.
PLATA: My legs are good too.
Lady B: You needn’t fret, sir. In this ballroom there is no such thing as an excess of excellent legs.
GANGES: Dear ladies, the winds are shifting, the tides turning. It is time my brother rivers and I depart. (bows to me and Lady B)
Thank you for visiting today, Ganges. It was really a pleasure. I’ll make sure to tell Ben and Leam you came by.
Danube follows Ganges out, shaking his head and pulling Nile behind him by the kerchief.
PLATA: (winks at me and my sister authoresses) See you ladies back home.
Lady B: Extraordinary.
Actually, their visit makes me think about where I’d like to travel to next. I’m pretty sure which fantastic place I’d choose. But I really wonder where our guests would go on a dream vacation if they could go anywhere in the world!
Lady B: Anywhere in the world? Delightful notion.
<squawk! The Love Boat! squawk!>
Just what I was thinking, Albert. Ladies and gentlemen, you can take one other person — anybody — with you on your dream vacation. Who will it be and where will you go?