Nonnetto had indeed made a bargain to protect me from the Fatine. Alas, he hadn’t the foresight to save my mother.
It’s strange to think upon the fact that all of our parents once were children themselves. Before they became the all knowing beings, shrouded in the mysticism that comes with age, each one was just a mischievous, wicked little imp. Their font of wisdom sprung from grappling their own parents with ceaseless questions, milking the knowledge of their years. My mother had been just such a creature, perhaps more wild than most.
While my Nonnetto, her Papà would labor in the vineyards, she would sit at his feet, exploring the universe to be found in the sweet, rich earth below. She delighted in digging her toes through the warm, black dirt, and stumbling upon earthworms nestled there in.
“They keep the land fertile” Nonnetto would say. “They’re magical things, eating up the soil and passing it through their guts! It changes once inside them. Without worms, there would be no flowers, no trees, and certainly none of these grapes!” He’d laugh, tossing her the treasure of one or two succulent orbs stained by the palate of dusk.
He never allowed her the chance to revile the worms for their slithering bodies or the mire of muddied slime that embraced their flesh. As a result, she came to love all the creatures of the lower world. Each worm and chirping cricket, each skittering lizard and beetles in their strange obsidian husks. They all held some odd magic to her. Perhaps it was from the touch the Fatine left upon her, or perhaps it was nothing more than her own peculiar sensibilities. Regardless, she enjoyed a communion with nature few mortals know.
I am told it is strange in girl children, gender itself of course being a conundrum to me as I will explain in time. Strange they say, to garner such affection for the spindle legged and wing born beasts who tarry underfoot. Stranger still was her desire to keep them as her pets, secretly snatching them up into her apron and transporting them to glass jars and crystal bowls she had stolen from about the house. She never meant to be cruel, and kept them well fed with pilfered tidbits from the garden. She knew well enough which among them fed on rotting wood, and which preferred to dine on verdant leaves.
Most prized among her collection was a type of beetle called the cervo volante, or flying deer. They had won the name because the males of the species wore a pair of chitonous mandibles, which jut forth from their heads like antlers, making them quite splendid to behold.
They were easy enough to procure. The boys in the surrounding village would sometimes tie a length of string to the poor creatures, and fly them about like kites.
The children themselves were of no interest to my mother. Their cruelty was not limited to the beetles they bound or stray dogs they beat with sticks. When she dared to show herself, they’d accost her with a barrage of ugly words they’d been taught to hurl at the “gypsies” who littered the gutters and alleyways. While my mother was not among them, her caramel skin and tangled mane of ebony curls were enough to win their hatred. They had been taught by self-proud parents that people of such distinctions were no more than insects, to be swatted away and stomped under heel.
“Zingari!” They called her, mosquito, for the “gypsies”, nomads of the street, were skilled in theft and fed like parasites upon the worthy. Zingari, she’d laugh, she celebrated the name. She would rather be counted among the insects than she would humanity most days.
She would wait, watching the children from sun-spared pockets of shade. When the boys had grown bored with their “kites”, as they inevitably did, and dashed off to play more rugged games, my mother would snatch up their discarded toy. Patience having rewarded her, she’d bring the thread yoked beast back for her menagerie.
It was hidden upon an overhanging rafter, too high for curious eyes to blunder upon. With her prize tucked snugly away in her apron pocket, she’d climb the stone walls to the bare beam where her glass bound hostages lay. There, she would lovingly free the rescued beetle from it’s bindings only to inter it under a punchbowl or an overturned candy dish. She was certain that her father, in his own silent way, offered his blessing. Only just the other day she had climbed up into the rafters to discover three glass sconces from the dining room chandelier. She had thought to herself what fine homes they might make her crawling darlings, but alas they had proven too high for her to reach, even when she stood atop the table.
In time, the crystal vanishing from the cupboards caught the notice of the vingeto’s noblidonna, the lady of the house, Signora Moretti. She’d savaged the servants who tended the house with beatings. It was her hope that she might lash free some trickle of truth by tongue of the whip.
“You’ve broken my favorite bowl! You’ve shattered my lovely vase! You did it and hid the pieces away! I know you did!” She’d shriek with all the fury of the harpies as her leather flail cut the air.
“Clumsy, clumsy fool! Did you think I wouldn’t notice? What have you done with it! Where have you hidden it?”
In time, having split enough flesh to satisfy herself of their ignorance, she now watched the vignaioli, who tended the vines, with narrowed eyes. Most of the laborers she saw as soulless arms and fingers. Appendages that plucked grapes and hadn’t grace for much else. They had no mind, no will but that imposed upon them. The exception of course was my Nonnetto and his horrid little child.
She loathed the old man and his unabashed lunacy. What reason had he to make up those stories of devils in the woods other than to hide his own sordid past? Devils indeed! It was clear in her mind he was some manner of criminal, more than likely a thief. That missing thumb was proof of it! He’d probably lost it putting a fist through a shop window.
Then there was that awful little girl. She was always covered in mud and filth, like the wretched little piglet she was. The poor rugs were forever marred with that monster’s muddy footprints. There was no doubt they were her doing, small and ambling with those ghastly crooked toes. It would be no surprise to find that her vagrant father was grooming her to become a little bandit herself. That was it of course. He was training the little cretin! Undoubtedly, he was sending her about the house to pocket wares they might resell at market. First the crystal, but what was next? Her jewelry no doubt, or perhaps the silver!
The Signora would weep false tears and bemoan her plight to her husband, begging him to send the pair away. Alas, Signore Moretti would not be swayed. Time had taught him to sieve through the wails and moans of his bride. Indeed, he’d become nearly deaf to her constant protests. It was an adaptation made for the sake of sparing his own sanity. To her dismay, he’d merely laugh at her suspicions.
“The old man is more use to me than you are.” He’d roll off in his guileless way. “Maybe he has made a deal with the Devil, but so long as I reap from it I’ll not turn him away. Those vines were near death till he came. You and I both might have been made paupers, but look at our vigneto now! My biggest worry is that the vines might snap from the weight of all the fruit upon them!”
“But my crystal!” She tore the air asunder with the shrillness of her cries.
“Let him have it if he likes. It seems a fair enough trade to me.” Signore Moretti shrugged, leaving his wife to mull her own ire.
“I’ll have him beaten, him and his child! I’ll see they give me back my things!” She wailed in a voice that strangled each hall and corridor of the home.
“You can drive your flock with terror but only so long.” He chided her. “You’ve as good as begged for your servant’s retaliation. Leave my men alone!” Far from the warning he meant it as, these words only courted her chariness of all who kept the house.
It was only a matter of time however before her husband’s words proved true. Cruel, bitter blooms of malcontent had swollen within the souls of all who kept the noblidonna’s home. This was especially true of one little maid by the name of Valentina. She was young, and proud, her ears yet unaccustomed to scorn. Perhaps given the right opportunities in life, she might have become very much like the mistress she despised. She had that same seed of wickedness within her.
It was rare that the maids were asked to tend to the vignaioli’s quarters. However, on this day, the noblidonna intended to host a gathering of her most distinguished friends and confidants. She would give them a tour of the grounds, and show them how exquisitely kept her property was.
“Yes, I know.” The noblidonna could be heard rehearsing in front of any mirror unlucky enough to hold her reflection. “We’ve certainly turned the place around! Why look, even the servants quarters are pristine! Oh! Santo cielo, thank you, your too kind! Honestly these are simply the rewards of being a strict task master!”
Valentina had been charged with sweeping the quarters where Mama and Nonnetto slept. She’d learned what came of displeasing her mistress. Not wanting to be accused of leaving the chamber anything less than immaculate, when she had finished with the room proper, she stood upon a chair to tend the grime and cobwebs in the rafters. It was there she discovered the menagerie.
She turned over the wayward chalices and bowls to discover all manner of vermin beneath. That seed of wickedness withing her began to grow, climbing her spine and wrapping tendrils about her ribcage until at last it infiltrated her skull. Thus tickled, a deliciously vengeful plot began to simmer and boil within her brain.
She had always liked my Nonnetto. Though he was doubtless odd, he was kind and gentle. Still, she could not resist the opportunity to impart a bit of cruelty upon her mistress. The woman had earned it after all.
With the help of a few other servants, she brought the purloined glassware to the kitchen. She instructed each conspirator to be careful that not even one of Mama’s queer pets be let to escape. There, among the pots and pans, she revealed her plot to the chef and his staff. They were all too eagerly to weave themselves into it.
That evening, following an exhaustive tour of the property as conducted by Signore Moretti herself, a lavish dinner was served. The noblidonna was delighted to see that her beloved crystal had been returned, and what’s more was being used to ornament this most important dinner. Her guests must have thought it odd to eat hot meals from crystal wares, but the noblidonna paid little notice. She prided herself upon having finally browbeat her staff into returning her glassy hoard.
The courses seemed endless. Appetites were unlocked with a warm piadina bread, followed by piping hot bowls of malfattini in brodo, triumphantly usurped by a course of beef cheek and squab liver ravioli’s in a black truffle sauce. Each delicacy seemed to conquer the next and the noblidonna herself even had to admit that the feast had exceeded her own weak expectations. Still, she could not help but notice the peculiar crunch that occasionally laden a spoonful or two. It was not wholly unpleasant but unexpected.
“Perhaps some pine nuts or an uncrushed peppercorn.” She rationalized to herself as her teeth worked through the grit.
She hoped she had only imagined the same look of surprise upon the faces of her guests. Every now and then, she thought she spied them running their tongues along their teeth, trying to pry loose a bit of that curious, unidentified seasoning wedged between. The evening might have gone on this way, tending a polite unease had it not been for a young signorina by the name of Columbine. She was the betrothed of a wealthy landowner, and perhaps not yet socially experienced enough to hide her appall at finding a very large, black beetle at the bottom of her soup bowl. It’s dead eyes stared up at her accusingly, and she failed to dam the flood of sick that came in reply. This torrent began the upheaval of the noblidonna’s carefully choreographed festa.
When all her guests had fled the house in disgust, Signore Moretti lost to guffaws, the noblidonna summoned her staff before her. She was crimson with blush of humiliation, waving a crystal bowl that now sloshed with roasted beetle carcasses before them. With her customary spleen, she demanded one among the brood confess to this deed. In spite of her threats and bluster, there could hardly have been a less prolific display. Nearly all the house staff had some hand in this game, and they did their best to guise their snickers.
The real victims of course were the beetles, and my poor young mother. She was hardly yet six and incapable of comprehending the depths of human depravity. Still, she was not so ignorant that she failed to understand what had become of her beloved captives.
She fell to her knees, bawling “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry! They must have gotten loose!”
The mistress of the house made no attempt to hide her savage delight in having finally been vindicated. She knew all the long that this girl and her father were trouble. Here was the proof! How could her husband possibly contest?
“Loose? What do you mean Armonia?” My Nonnetto begged.
Between the clutch of sobs she explained to her father how she had kept the creatures hidden from him, wanting to have them with her always. “You must have known!” She sniffled. “You brought me the glass from the chandelier yourself!”
Nonnetto was bewildered by the claim. He looked at the gaudy monstrosity swaying above the tabletop. It had indeed been stripped of a few sconces, but he was scarce tall enough nor come to think of it spry enough to climb up there for a bit of glass.
There was a palpable transience that came upon the room, the staff having realized they’d condemned an elderly man and child to the whip.
“I’ll teach you what comes of thievery!” The noblidonna practically sang the words, so delighted by the prospect of once again breaking flesh. She grabbed mama by the arm, digging her nails into the softness of her skin. “You’re long overdue your first whipping!”
Hearing his child threatened Nonnetto near erupted from his hide. It was not him but something near primeval, now awakened from a dark recess of his mind, that thrust itself between the noblidonna and my mama. This furious thing, that now possessed him, bellowed through his throat. From out his mouth came a voice that shook the windows in their panes.
“Whatever ugliness you have you can deliver to me you old witch!” He spat in the woman’s smug face. “Blame me for my failures as a servant or a father, but I’ll tear the eyes from that wrinkled sac you call a face before I let you lay one shriveled hand on this child.”
With that, he pried the old woman’s fingers loose as if they were but brittle twigs, ripe for making kindling.
Despite her promises to the contrary, she did not punish him, not that day. Nor did she punish his child. Perhaps she was afraid, having faced a malevolence to match her own. Still, he knew they had culled a powerful enemy in the woman. From that day on he was never out of her eye. She stalked him with her gaze, the way a vulture courts those who waltz with death, yearning for the dance to end.
Nonnetto walked my mother out to the vineyards after the row. The fragments of her menagerie gathered in a burlap sack.
“They aren’t meant to be kept like that, those bugs.” He said solemnly, not wanting to further stir the child’s pain. Four blood crescents still spoiled the girl’s brown flesh, a reminder of the noblidonna’s temper. He bristled at the sight of them.
“I know.” She whispered, her voice still scalded by tears.
“They don’t belong to you, they don’t belong to anyone.” Nonnetto continued. He struggled to find the calm he wished to offer this child amidst the rage that still churned within him.
She nodded in reply, staring off into the emptiness of night. She half hoped some savior might emerge from the cloak of darkness, part the skies and wash the memory of this evening away.
“You must lay them to rest now.” Nonnetto said, leaving her to tend the task.
He turned back a moment, watching the girl as she knelt down in the dirt. A queer feeling overtook him. Something vague, and only half recognizable, now. Yet there was something in his recollection that told him, once long ago, he had known this feeling well. There was a sudden breathlessness, a quickening of his heart, his ears rung and for a moment he felt as though he was simultaneously tumbling away from his body and dissolving into a million pinpricks of light. It was all instantaneous of course, barely taking place in the dawn of a reckoning, but it was there.
“Armonia?” He asked my mother, when again he found his voice.
She turned and looked at him, her eyes black as sloes in the dim of night.
“Why did you tell them I took the glass from the chandelier?” He asked pensively. It hardly mattered now, but he couldn’t cast the thought from his mind. It seemed to trumpet in his ears, and echo through his skull, demanding his immediate attention. “Why?”
She shrugged her shoulders and shook her head in a maddeningly vacant reply. “I just thought…” She droned into the night, her thoughts slipping free before they might be grasped by her tongue and given voice. She left him without answer, turning her eyes away. She was contented only to stare through the dark veil of night.
“You can go now.” She hummed, digging into the wet, black dirt with her fingers, her eyes remained transfixed. “Dig, dig, digging a grave.” She sang softly in a voice he scarce recognized.
Nonnetto thought it best to let the child be. Clearly she’d been rattled, but not so severely that she couldn’t find her way back to their quarters once she’d made her peace. She was safe there, among nature. The noblidonna wouldn’t dare to dirty her skirt hems in the fields. Despite the strange, inexplicable urging within him, he let the girl alone… to dig.
Perhaps he would have stayed if he knew who waited in the dark.