“Demoni.” Scarafaggio repeated the word again and again to himself upon his return home. “She said Demoni, but she meant us.”
“Yes, demoni, demoni.” Mammina said with palpable annoyance. “She could have said démon, dämon, or demon.” The drone recited with the flourish of each foreign tongue transmitted from it’s memory. They’re all the same thing, just another word humans use for things they cannot explain. “
“What does it mean?” He implored. For the first time in his life, he found Mammina reluctant to share it’s knowledge with him. The drone had effused trivial facts in the past well beyond the point of annoyance. Now, Mammina’s words had to be pried from the labyrinth of it’s mind.
“It’s a bad thing.” Scarafaggio ventured, Mammina made no motion to correct him. “I gleaned her memories of that night.”
“You shouldn’t have done that.” Mammina said, sheltering it’s harried face in it’s hands. “Oh what have I done?”
“She was scared Mammina.”
“Humans are easily frightened.” The drone said, pacing about, the muscles of it’s neck pulled so tightly in agitation that it’s bare head began to shiver under the strain.
“The place where she lives, she’s hiding there, hiding from us.” Scarafaggio spoke and again was answered by Mammina’s silent affirmation.
“The word…” Mammina elucidated after a long, agonizing silence in which Scarafaggio was bound by the winding of his own thoughts. “The word demoni comes from human mythology. Demoni are…” The drone paused, conjuring up images to play out within the theatre of Scarafaggio’s now thrashing mind.
Scarafaggio watched as visions of hideous winged beasts unfolded before him, savage creatures who sated themselves upon deeds of rape and torment. These were monsters who suckled the teat of despair, nursing themselves upon all that was horrid and brutal in life. In the arena of human imaginings, they had been adorned in animalistic armors, which accentuated their savagery. Yet in their essence, these were creatures who, like the Fatine, cultivated pain so that they might feed upon it. Exemplefied before him were beings who made humanity their chattle. Dependent upon them for their sexual tillage as well as the sustenance drawn from their emotional aethers, the Fatine had no qualms with tapping into this same ore for their own petty amusements.
“If I ever showed myself to my mother, let her know that her baby had survived…”
“She’d recognize you for what you are, and she’d only be afraid. They call us Fatine, demoni, sometimes they think we are the spirits of their dead returned to them.” Mammina said dolefully.
Scarafaggio remembered the festival Guendalina had brought him to. It had been a remembrance of the dead and yet she and children like her were told fantastic tales of those whose lives had been spent returning for no other reason than to bestow gifts upon well behaved youngsters. Had such notions been fostered by Fatine, preying upon mortal dread? Do our bidding and we’ll give you a treat, there’s a good human.
Mammina smiled as it sifted through his thoughts. “Yes, we have walked hand in hand with man, sculpted their very existence to suit ourselves. Your mother might call you Demoni, but there are others who would tout you as an angel or even a God.”
The drone took a moment to enjoy Scarafaggio’s bewildered expression. “Perhaps there will be time for me to explain those words to you too.”
“Why wouldn’t there be? Where are you going?” Scarafaggio begged in timorous voice.
There was the conspicuous soot of the ominous which sullied Mammina’s words. He’d already learned that a drone’s mind was not so easily unraveled as his siblings, nor even the humans he’d dallied with. No matter how deeply he burrowed into Mammina’s thoughts, he’d never draw forth any sensible answer from within.
“Gods, they’re omnipotent beings who see all, know all.” Mammina explained, smoothing the wayward strands of the boy’s now disheveled hair from his face. “In spite of all the memories we may share as collective, the knowledge we have accumulated over so many lifetimes, we are not they.”
“No.” Scarafaggio admited, welcoming the touch of his Mammina. In that moment he had no desire to be anywhere that fell beyond the reach of the drone’s fingertips, or outside the reigns of it’s embrace.
“My mother hates me.” He carelessly allowed his thoughts to filter through his voice, as too often he did.
“No…it doesn’t.” Mammina said warmly, collecting it’s child in it’s whisper thin arms.
“Did you ever hate me for what I did? “ He asked, suddenly awakened to the weight of the vile about his neck, and the barrier it created between his Mammina and him. “Did you ever hate me for killing my brothers?”
“No.” Mammina simply said. Then, gathering it’s thoughts from the mire of their shared past, it took up tongue with more clarity. “If your queens have access to your every thought, every moment that you live, then what does it say of them that they allowed you to commit an act that would require such punishment? Why not just stop you before the deed was done?”
He’d never before considered the question, and yet he could tell that there was not a day that passed in which Mammina didn’t. In all this time he’d never explored the role that his remaining brothers and sisters had in the affair. The mischevious deeds of three boys were let to go unrestrained, and punished only afterwards. If the Fatine had so loved the fiddler and his music, why had none stepped forward to halt his hand when moved to mutilate himself? They’d been swift enough to capture the children for punishment, enraptured by the prospect in fact, yearning for the malady of it all.
“Enough of this.” Mammina’s protest shattered his thought. “You’ve yet to tell me of your Guendalina.”
He regaled it with his stories until the sun had drunk away the moon and banished all her starry children. They had forsaken sleep for one another’s company that night. When dawn had at last broken, his Mammina had sent him away.
“Go to the girl, and prove your mother wrong. “ Had been Mammina’s departing words. The drone had been very insistent he be on his way, as if there was some great ugliness lingering in the scarlet clouds of the horizon from which it wished to spare him.
Here with his Guendalina, he hardly had mind to comprehend things of such gravity. All was blithe and his every glimpse was gifted with a new visceral kind of reality. Together, he and the girl child watched a bee drift from one flower to the next in the hazy light of morn. A perfectly mundane event, and yet she’d fastened such an enthrall to the thing that he could not but help to be consumed by it’s contagion.
“I think Fatine must be related to bees.” She declared, watching the insect in flight.
“Why do you say that?” Scarafaggio asked; he was somewhat offended by the comparison, yet it hardly brandished the same sting as demoni.
Guendalina laughed in reply. “Follow me, I’ll show you.” She offered, scampering off through the grass before her friend could give objection.
He followed her under barren treetops, and the shattered streams of sunlight that spilt from their branches. Through fields where wicked thistles lay in wait to bite naked feet and ankles, and yet her step never faltered. All the while her black curls jostled, bouncing upon her footfall as if beckoning him on. He might have followed those leaping ringlets anywhere, and yet on this day he found himself delivered unto a strange field, where groves of wooden boxes lay in rows.
“Bee hives” She explained. Before he could protest that these did not look at all like the bee hives he’d encountered, he watched as a flurry of the insects flit in and out of slats in these waiting wooden domiciles.
“Why are they here?” He wondered, peering into the crevice the bees had wafted into before Guendalina pulled him back by his trouser waist. The things were such an ill fit she nearly pulled them down, and he yelped in protest, hitching the awkward cloth back into place. He surprised even himself with how readily he’d adopted the custom of adorning his body, be it with flowers or tweeds. His struggle won him only a rupture of laughter from the girl.
“You need suspenders,” she remarked. Then, returning to the subject of bees, she explained. “We keep them for their honey, but they’re not tame, they’ll still sting you if you get too close.”
How clever humans could be, to so engineer nature for their own desires. He doubted it would please the girl to learn that the Fatine kept mankind under a similar kind of subjugation.
“So you say I am like a bee?” He invited the girl to loose her theories upon him.
She nodded fervently. “They’re supposed to share one mind. All of them, all the bees in a hive are really one animal.”
“I don’t believe that.” He scoffed, arms akimbo. “They must all have different…well…” What had it been Mammina had said? “Bees who take care of bee babies must not know much about the bees who make bee babies…or they wouldn’t need to have separate… tasks.” He tried in what was admittedly a less eloquent version of Mammina’s original explanation.
“No. They don’t.” Guendalina agreed. “I can’t see with my hand, and I can’t touch with my eyes, but that doesn’t make them separate from me.”
Sometimes it was insulting to him that a girl with only six years of life behind her could wield logic so.
“There’s a type of bee who does the housekeeping.” Guendalina elaborated. “They take care of the baby bees, clean the hive, just… take care of things, that’s their job.”
“Mammina.” Scarafaggio muttered to himself. “Those must be the drones.”
“No.” Guendalina said with a grin. “Drone bees are the lazy ones. All they do is lay about and wait to have babies with the queen.” Her grin twisted into a smirk. “They die right after.”
“That’s the kind I’d be I suppose.” He said, punctuating the words with a bought of laughter. “Lazy, good for nothing vitelloni!” He’d heard the word used slanderously by the humans he’d taken to watching, and felt quite proud of himself now for having employed it in conversation.
“Lucky for me, our queens never have babies.” He revealed of his people.
This surprised the girl, a look of blatant confusion crossed her face. “Then what do they do?” She mused. “What use are they?”
Scarafaggio thought for a moment, uncertain of the answer himself. “Well, there are two queens,” He finally dredged the recitation from his memories. “They’re always born in pairs. One balances the other so that their decisions are always…”
“What decisions do they have to make?” Guendalina’s words intruded upon his divinations for an answer.
His Mammina’s words the previous night now consumed him.
“If your queens have access to your every thought, every moment that you live, then what does it say of them that they allowed you to commit an act that would require such punishment?”
What kind of queen would invite a child into a life mulled with guilt, torment and shame for one night’s amusement? His queens may have ruled in tandem, but it seemed the union did little to foster reason or parity in one another. What use were they indeed?
“Well, humans have queens don’t they?” He stammered. “What do they do?”
“It’s not the same.” Guendalina said, shaking her head and transforming her curls into a jumble of bouncing corkscrews.
“Of course it is!” He said, frustration mounting into that sort of wild-eyed franticness that overtakes the lost. He now found himself completely adrift in whatever logic he had once felt bound Fatine society.
“We had one, well an Empress” Guendalina said, taking Scarafaggio’s hand in hers and leading him along the rows of false hives that surrounded them. “Before I was born I mean, but she was in France…” Scarafaggio shot her a quizzical look, and she wondered if Fatine comprehended the boundaries of kingdom and country humans had drawn upon the land.
“France is a hive, very far away.” She said, pointing to a hive at the far corner of the field to illustrate her point, and hoping her friend wouldn’t mistakenly believe that this was in fact the country of France. “Most people here would have never even seen the queen, except in paintings.”
“Then what good was she?” Scarafaggio posed, feeling very proud of himself for having been able to turn the question’s blade away from his own throat.
“Not much. The Emperor did most…”
“What is The Emperor?”
“A boy queen.” She resolved. Scarafaggio seemed to accept the answer. “A boy queen that takes over other hives.”
Scarafaggio understood this much at least. Among the Fatine tribù there were often such vanquishings. One pair of queens consumed another, the fallen queens’ tribù assimilated along with all it’s collective memories. However among his kind, he doubted there were many males who would be so inclined as to trouble themselves with these labours. There was little beyond the pleasures of love making and feasting upon the banquet of human emotions that moved them to action. He was infinitely curious about this male queen and what sort of world could have driven him to such measures.
“I want to meet your male queen!” He announced in perhaps too exuberant a bellow for such intimate company.
“He isn’t around anymore, he died a long time before I was born. Now we just have, well, a lot of little hives.”
“If this all happened before you were born, how do you know about it?” He puzzled.
He had been told humans had no recollections of such things. It was a justification his people often used for imbibing upon them as gluttonously as they did. These creatures have no meaningful memory. They were troubled by no thoughts beyond what was necessary for sustaining the flesh and yet the collection of human memoirs he so delighted in within the confines of his own skull was proof against such narcissistic logic.
“Papà tells me things, reads to me. The people who did live then wrote about it in books. I’m learning to read a little myself.” She said, an emulsion of pride gave sheen to her plump face.
Before Scarafaggio could make reply, the shrill caw of what one could have easily mistaken for a harpie echoed across the fields.
“There you are you little monster!”
It was the Noblidonna. Not unlike a harpie, the scowling woman swooped down upon Guendalina. With vicious, work worn talons she grasped the girl by the arms. No mistake could be made, this child was her quarry and she had at last been caught.
“I followed you out here!” She rasped, clearly out of breath from the journey. Her skirt hems and boots were threaded with burrs and thistles for the effort, and awash with the grubby tarnish of dew dampened soil.
“And it’s a good thing I did you horrible little thief!”
“Yes, I was about to steal all the bees!” Guendalina giggled. No matter how the Noblidonna might twist her face with the ugliness of wrath, the child saw her as little more than a joke, adorned in pretty finery.
Scarafaggio however had watched the goings on of this woman’s vinegto. He’d seen the tongue of her whip burrow into the hides of guiltless servants for no other reason than to sate the woman’s barbarism. She was ever bit as malignant and wretched as he was beginning to understand the twin queens to be.
“Please, help yourself!” The woman sneered, her face mangled by the curl of a sneer upon her lip. She grasped the girls chubby hand and shoved it violently into the slats of a wooden hive.
Guendalina screamed as a volley of stings pierced the tender meat of her hand. The bee’s, seeing this intrusion as an attack had launched into a defensive assault, using the only weapons they had at their disposal.
“Go on, take them, take them all!” The woman laughed mockingly, holding the girl fast.
Scarafaggio found his hands flying before his mind had sense to stop them. He wrenched the girl from the Noblidonna’s clutch, tossing her safely aside upon a tuffet of grass, where she sat, nursing her swelling hand.
The Noblidonna, thinking the child had somehow wriggled free, turned to pluck her up once more, but found her body netted by some invisible force. Scarafaggio, never revealing himself, had furled his arms around the woman. For all her ferocity, he was surprised to feel how weak she was. How easy it would be to draw the life from this leathery carapace, how glad the world would be once rid of her.
“Don’t do it boy!” An intruding voice commanded him within his mind.
He glanced over his shoulder to see the old fiddler trudging his way towards the melee. Guendalina’s papà, had he divined the boy’s presence last night? He’d felt the old man’s eyes upon him, met his gaze, but hardly thought anything of it. Perhaps he’d not given the codger enough credit.
Scarafaggio only half abided the old man’s wishes. He wouldn’t rob the old woman of her life this day, but she couldn’t go unpunished, not for hurting his Guendalina.
The woman writhed in his arms with all the grace and charm of a worm impaled upon a hook. The touch of her stale, age decant flesh against his drew his gut into upheaval, and he shoved the old harridan hard against one of the hives. The frail wooden box burst to splinters beneath her weight, freeing the now virulent bees within to turn their spleen upon a new victim. This one was infinitely more deserving.
He watched with a kind of delight that was quite characteristically Fatine, as the woman struggled to pull herself to standing. This creatures suffering he had no qualms in drinking of.
“Strega! Strega! Piccola Strega!” The Noblidonna shrieked as she clawed at the insects, whose spindle legs tangled in her eyelashes and taunted her flaring nostrils. “I knew there was something wrong with you! You’re a horrible little witch! A witch!” It was all she could say before choking on a mouthful of bees that had taken advantage of her jaw agape.
She ran as best she could. The bees, like a droplet of ink sent on a slow tumble through water, became a black and swirling fog, surrounding her all the while. Still, enkindled by both the burn of their sting and fear, her scrambling feet managed to carry her away till she was just a shadowed speck in the distance.
Scarafaggio found himself unable to look away, having completely lost track of the fiddler’s approach from the opposite direction. He was startled when he turned and saw the old man was now kneeling beside his child.
He watched the two, knowing he had no place in their communion. There was a tenderness between them that both stirred a jealousy and longing within him. All this while he’d thought of the child as “his Guendalina” yet he was now painfully aware that she was not. He was a friend, a consort, but never a father. He hadn’t the power to kiss away the pain of injury, or damn the flow of tears as he saw the fiddler do now. He suddenly felt impotent in the old man’s presence, and turned to leave.
“Stay.” The old man’s voice echoed in his head. The fiddler had hardly even granted him the graze of his eye, and yet he was well aware of the boy. It could not be denied now.
“Yes.” Scarafaggio agreed wordlessly. “I will.”
He watched as the old man took up some dirt in his hand, spit in it, then stirred the stuff to a muddy paste with a finger. He spread the curious salve over the girls hand, then recited some odd jibberish. Whatever powers he had conjured seemed to quell the child, and he cradled her in his arms.
“Go home and have a rest.” He spoke soothingly to the child.
“By myself?” She said with mild protest, for the moment her adventurous spirit having abandoned her.
“You came here by yourself didn’t you?” He asked, imploring the truth from her tear starred eyes.
She turned those eyes for a moment to Scarafaggio, black as obsidian, then shook her head no.
Her papà left a kiss upon each of her cheeks. “I’ll be by in a moment.” He insisted. “Go on, it’s not so long a walk from here, you know that.”
Reluctantly, the girl stood, and made a few ambling steps in the direction of home. She paused, as if waiting for Scarafaggio to join her. She held out her hand, waiting for his to fill it. Unthinking, he stepped forward and found himself met with the fiddler’s admonishing gaze.
“I’ll race you.” Scarafaggio said with what he hoped came across as his usual jaunty tone, leaning an elbow upon one of the hives that still stood. “But you’re so slow, with those stubby little legs, I guess it’s only fair I give you a head start.”
With that, Guendalina turned and dashed across the field, a grin stretched wide across her face. She hurried away, leaving Scarafaggio to confront the old fiddler.
“I owe you my thanks son, but I’ll ask that you don’t interfere again.” The old man said brusquely, looking Scarafaggio plain in the face. “You’ll cause more harm than good.”
It was clear that the boy was unaccustomed to being addressed with such candor by humans, at least those he’d not revealed himself to.
“Your glamours only work on people who don’t know what they should be seeing.” The fiddler explained. “She talks about you so much, at first I thought she’d made you up. Then it came to me that there might be a group of you things prowling about. “
“I wasn’t prowling.” Scarafaggio said with downcast eyes, fingers nervously twiddling at the tail of the braid the girl had put in his hair not an hour ago.
“You have no claim to her son.” The old man said sternly, thrusting his maimed hand in the boys face. “You set the terms of the deal yourself.”
“You recognize me?” He said, taken aback. It had been six years and his childlike plumpness had been replaced by the lank of adolescence. He’d been told before that humans had no eye for the subtlety of features between one or another of the Fatine, yet this one did.
“Of course I do.” He said, brine ladling his voice. “I was practically one of your tribù. Where’s the other two you run with? I’ve never known you things to travel alone.”
“Dead.” Scarafaggio said, the word came as dry and listlessly as his brother’s scattered ashes had flown on wind.
“What happened?” The fiddler asked, there was a clear varnish of concern over his otherwise austere voice.
“They made me…” He explained, finding the words too vexing to speak, he instead opted to show the old man his memories of that night, when his brothers had been rendered no more than memories.
“And you did what they asked?” The fiddler bellowed as the images manifest before his mind’s eye. “You let them puppet you about like that?”
“I had to.” Scarafaggio grieved. “They would have made us pariah if I didn’t!”
“And what’s so wrong with that?” The fiddler demanded in a voice that lacerated the very pith of Scarafaggio’s being. “You’d rather serve those sadists? Run to their protection, no matter the cost?”
The fiddler spat forth a battery of curses and sent a hand flying towards the boy. He cringed, thinking the old man had moved to strike him, but instead he tried to tear free the vile of deathless glass Scarafaggio had been condemned to wear about his neck. Under the beckoning of the old man’s fingers, the chord that held the vile in place slithered to life, tightening around Scarafaggio’s throat, strangling him, mining ever deeper into the soft flesh. The fiddler, realizing what he was doing, drew back his hand, and the chord once again fell lank.
Scarafaggio gasped, collapsing to the ground and thirstily drinking air into his lungs while the old man looked on, trepidation peeling back the wrinkled flesh that hung about his eyes.
“I did it so I could live.” Scarafaggio wheezed, pulling himself up on to his hands and knees. “The pariah don’t survive.”
“Sorry boy.” The fiddler said offering him a hand in what appeared to be some vain of friendship.
“Not boy.” He protested once he’d caught his breath. “Or son either. It’s Scarafaggio.” He beamed proudly. “I’ve a name now. Your daughter chose it herself.”
“It sounds like a name she’d pick.” The fiddler chuckled, one eyebrow raised. “Scarafaggio.” He repeated again to himself, tickled by the sound of it.
“You’re wrong about the pariah you know.” The fiddler said, pulling a pipe from his coat pocket and packing it snugly.
Scarafaggio watched the process with great interest. “I’ve seen what happens to them.” He said, mesmirized by the lick of flame awakened from a matchhead the fiddler had plucked from yet another pocket. Clothing it seemed had more uses than decoration.
“Maybe none in your lifetime.” He allowed. “but I’ve seen them myself, talk to one or two of them regularly. Refugees, all of us.”
“No, you’re lying. I’d remember it if that happened.” He protested, studying the way the old man drew breath from the pipe and exhaled in thin drifts of cloud.
“You think your queens are going to keep that memory floating around for you?” The old man needled, pulling his pipe away from the inquisitive dalliances of Scarafaggio’s fingers. “Stop that, you’ll burn yourself!” He reprimanded.
“They can take our memories?” He posed. The fiddler nodded. Scarafaggio had suspected as much, and yet here was the first time he’d been offered validation.
“So long as you’re bound to them they can.” The old man said with a roguish grin. “There wouldn’t be much incentive to stay around and do their bidding if you lot discovered there was a way out.”
Scarafaggio found himself incapable of reply, or doing much beyond watching the pale blue curls of smoke vent from the old man’s lips and nostrils.
“If you still think I’m lying to you, ask your brothers and sisters about this conversation we’re having right now when you get home. See if any one of them will remember it. If you’re all really one mind, they should don’t you think?”
He nodded, but he knew there was no need to test the truth of this man’s word. He was finding there were a great many things, which he had not been made privy to in the collective. He had no memory of his mother, or the night he had been collected from her. As Mammina pointed out, he had no understanding at all of the duties the drones tended to. Most disturbing, was the fact that he found himself unable to recall any reason at all he had to steal an infant girl all those years ago. He was still uncertain as to whether this last lull in his memory could be blamed this upon the queens’ censure or his own youthful lassitude.
“If I offered to teach you how to break away from them, promised to introduce you to the pariahs who’ve made it out, would you be at all interested?” The fiddler asked with too somber a face for jest.
“I can’t offer you anything in return.” Scarafaggio conceded.
“Not now, no, but you could.” The fiddler sighed, turning his gaze to the parse ribs of clouds drifting through the Autumn skies. “I’m taking a gamble on you.”
“Why?” Scarafaggio asked without voice.
“I was 19 years old when the Fatine collected me.” He said with mortal austere. “Do you have any idea how old that makes me now?”
Scarafaggio shook his head and the old man laughed at his own folly. “Of course you don’t what reason would immortals have to count the pass of years?”
He drew deeply upon his pipe, steeling himself to the awful truth that followed. “ I’m 66 years old Scarafaggio, and that little girl we’re so fond of is just barely 6. The kind of work I do, the sort of life I’ve lived, I have no delusions that I’ll live to see her wedding day.”
“I’m not a good prospect for marriage.” He said uneasily, giving rise to laughter which quick turned to choking as it caught in the old man’s throat.
“We’re in agreement on that.” The fiddler said. “But I saw the way you protected her today, she’ll need someone like you to look after her. You might have noticed, she’s not…well she isn’t…”
“Common.” Scarafaggio finished the old man’s though for him. The fiddler nodded appreciatively.
“Now make no mistake, if you go around tossing people into bee hives regularly, you’ll be doing more harm than good.” He chided.
Scarafaggio smiled sheepishly.
“However, in this particular case, I think you’ll agree it was warranted.” The fiddler said with a gruff chortle.
He puffed contentedly upon his pipe, peering off into the distance. “You’ve given her a beauty of a head start.” He said gingerly. “but it might be time you caught up.”
Scarafaggio nodded, starting off into a sprint. He stopped suddenly, and turned to the fiddler with a wide smile stretched across his face.
“Will you read me the story of the boy queen?” He implored.
“Boy queen?” The old man seemed perplexed by this request, scratching at the scruff of his chin.
“The Emperor, who takes over other hives.” Scarafaggio tried.
“Oh, him…” The old man laughed brightly, the spryness of youth returned to him momentarily. “I can do you one better.” He grinned, puffing his pipe and rocking back on to his heels. “I met the fellow… I promise to tell you all I can recall, that is if it can wait till tomorrow?”
Scarafaggio nodded, and dashed off to catch up to Guendalina.