Adriatic Coast, Italian Peninsula ≈ 1799-1840:
His name had been Francesco, though he’d never been satisfied to stay long enough in anyone’s company that they might learn it. More often than not, they called him Il Girovago, for in truth that’s what he was, a wanderer. For me, he was Nonnetto, grandfather, and yet he and I held no common lineage. To tell my own story, I must first tell his.
“For most men” He once told me “one day is the same as the next! The rising sun is a burden. Each new day means only that they must once again break their backs, toiling away at the same miserable chores in the hopes they’ll be rewarded with enough money to survive another day. Then, they’ll do it all over again!”
He’d laugh, his voice tumbling upon the peals, his face a leather tangle of road weary flesh. To him, the conundrum of the common man was at once the greatest comedy and most somber tragedy ever written.
“They wait for death to set them free, but I am not so patient.” He’d whisper, bending down to greet my eye. The earthy fragrance of tobacco, which he wore, seemed to waft from his body. Like a thing alive it embraced me in sweet, phantasmal tentacles.
“What do I need from life but my fiddle, and a few ears to play it for?”
With that, he’d tickle the coquettish strings with his fingers, caressing them with the bow, and coax out a jaunty tune. The strings spoke only of joviality, but I knew his words were half-truths. He had eventually been ensnared in the brambles of man’s world, saddled with my mother and me to provide for. Still, there had been a time when he had lived only by what the Italian countryside provided.
He was an old man when I knew him. I had been born on the very cusp of his journey’s end. Yet had it not been for the scant few years we knew one another I wonder at what manner of beast I might have been allowed to become.
His life, like so many lived before him, has now been stricken from human recollection. He never achieved the great wealth or acclaim that might earn him a place of honor amongst his own kind, and thus few kept him alive in their words. To the Fatine however, he is still the subject of ballads and legends wistfully told. This is but one of those many.
When he was young man, he would play his fiddle by light of the moon. He’d play till his fingers bled on the strings, puffing upon his pipe like some bemused dragon. He stopped only to watch the indigo night give way to pale azure dawn, then burst into the carmine flame of sunrise. Though he played for his own hearts contentment, he was never without an audience.
The Fatine, entities of the natural world mankind had long ago forsaken, listened intently. At first they remained guised in their glamours, untrusting of human kind. In time, curiosity drew them closer, into the comfort of shadows, where his eyes could scarce make them out and theirs never left him.
They would reward his performance by leading him through the rustling of leaves or snapping of twigs, to places where the forests and fields gave fruit. The Fatine will never take without giving something in return. Having sated themselves with his song, it was only fair they saw the favor met. As he traveled, so did word of him, from one Fatine tribù to the next, each gracious to reward for his gift.
Some part of him had come to sense the presence of their many eyes watching, their eager ears drinking up his songs, their naked feet tapping in time. When at last they became bold enough to reveal themselves, he simply offered a tip of the cap with his bow, never once breaking the rhythm of his song. Once their unwitting minstrel, this solitary man was now welcomed into their fold as an equal. For the better part of his youth, he dined in their hallows, and danced in their halls as few of the mortal world ever have before.
Yet in the decades he spent among them, he was never wholly allowed to forget what he was. The Fatine, like all creatures stilled married to instinct, maintained the brutality of the native world. While they were never cruel to their strange musical pet, he’d seen how they would lead weary travelers astray. He’d watched as they lulled their prey into eternal sleep, where they might consume his dreams and memories until he withered to dust. He’d even seen their women pleasure themselves on mortal men till the poor fools’ hearts burst from exhaustion, freeing sanguine tides of life to trickle from their lips and chin. He’d cringed while they laughed in delight at how pliable their lovers became once freed from life, dancing corpses around like marionettes while he begrudgingly cosseted with a song. He knew what might await him should he fall from their favor.
He held his tongue until one evening, he saw three Fatine boys running through the fields, tossing a small bundle back and forth between them. As the children drew closer, he heard the shrill, horrified cries of a human baby. It was more than he could bear. Abandoning the fear of his masters, that had until then bridled him, he snatched the child away.
He looked down at the babe in his arms, scarlet faced from sobbing. It was a baby girl; her belly bruised from the boys’ cruel, grasping fingers. The Fatine children stared at him in confusion.
“What use could you boys have for this child?” He demanded of them. The children were taken aback by the harshness in his voice, for in their minds they had done no wrong.
“What business is it of yours?” One of the boys sneered, trying in vain to snatch the baby away. “We’ve traded her and now she’s rightfully ours!”
“Yes, give us a song to toss her by!” The smallest of the boys trilled.
“What mother would trade her own baby away?” Nonetto wondered aloud.
“She was asleep!” The tallest boy crowed. “Besides, she can make another, humans do every day! The streets are crawling with the fat little things!” His broad smile was completely without malice, which somehow made the words all the more sickening to my Nonetto. He would not let them turn this child into a toy, the way they had him.
“What if I trade you something for her?” Nonetto tried. It was a prospect that stirred the boys’ interest.
“You don’t have anything we want.” The tallest laughed, though his eyes betrayed his interest.
“Name your price, anything you like. My fiddle? You can have my fiddle!” He said, thrusting the instrument at the children.
“It’s no use to us, we can’t make it play.” The tall one tossed back flippantly.
Nonetto was unrelenting. The boys communed, speaking within one another’s minds as Fatine do amongst their own kind. They were unwilling to give up their spoils so easily.
“We’ll do it.” The tall one spoke at last “In trade for your left thumb.” With that he rolled back upon his heels, smiling to himself. He was certain he’d chosen a prize too great for the musician to ever sacrifice.
Nonetto closed his eyes, and drew his breath. He knelt down on the grass, setting the baby girl at his feet, and beside her, his bow and fiddle. He looked back and forth between the two, lost until the babe looked up at him…and smiled. He returned this gesture with one of his own, hoping she could not sense the dolor it truly held.
With that, he drew from his belt a knife. It had been a happy companion in his time away from civilization, ever eager to cut through vegetation, or skin a fat hare. Now, he turned the blade upon his own flesh, resting his left hand upon his beloved fiddle, and fulfilling his end of the bargain. His mind confounded by pain he looked down upon the foresaken digit. It seemed to writh and inch of it’s own accord, as if seeking out the boney scaffolding that once held it.
“Caspita!” He muttered to himself. It was as if that discarded bit of flesh had been gifted life upon the blade. His eye could scarsely tell if the thing had once belong to his right or left hand, but the pain that coursed through his left wrist and arm served a curt reminder.
He left the Fatine court that day, bringing only the baby girl and his instrument along. Robbed of his song, he knew he was of no use to his odd hosts any longer.
He searched for the girl’s mother, questioning every woman he met with a tear in her eye, hoping that she wept for this babe, who had been spirited away. Yet in all his weary travels, never once did she reveal herself. It was just as well, for the child had become familiar with the cradle of his arms, and the sweet smell of tobacco that draped about him. He was her father now.
It was many years before he was once again able to play as he had while in Fatine favor. Never the less, his adoptive daughter bounced gleefully to each and every note, be they sour or sweet. Ever encouraging of his labors, he named the child Armonia, for it was she who kept harmony in his life.
While the Fatine no longer showed themselves, he’d sometimes wake to find offerings of fruits or fresh killed fowl waiting for him, always left in threes. He never took them, afraid of what accepting the gift might be condoning in trade. Still, he wondered if it might not be those three mischievous boys, trying to somehow make amends. No doubt their people had exacted their own brand of punishment upon the lads for spoiling their favorite pet.
His wandering feet at last carried him to the province of Rimini, where he found work as a vignaioli, tending the winding grape vines of the regions many vignetos. Perhaps it was a remnant of his life among those wisps of nature, but it seemed that withered leaves sprung to life beneath his touch and barren vines swelled with plump grapes.
He never saw need to keep the tales of his past a secret. Granted the protection of age, he sufficed to let those who would listen delight in him as a story-smith or scorn him as a blathering old fool. He was deemed harmless either way. In truth, he had no care what for what they might think of him. His only concern was with the child who would become my mother.
He could never have foreseen how the Fatine would weave their way back into his Armonia’s life, and the consequences that union would inevitably bring.
*In the original version the Italian word Folletti/ Folletto was used to describe the supernatural race. It has since been changed to Fatine/Fatina