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Chapter 8: Chrysanthemums

Chapter 8: Chrysanthemums

Rimini 1846:

My Nonnetto had become accustomed to the music of his daughter’s queries and many wonderings while he tended the vines. It had only been a short time ago that they had tumbled upon his ears with the furious tumult of a Summer’s rain. Now, she and her many wonderings had fallen silent. It was this silence that savaged him.

The shade of the vines, tangled one upon the other overhead, had once been a refuge for the girl. She had sat beneath them, scatterings of sunlight teasing her cheeks, safe in their leafy embrace. Since the night she had roused the noblidonna’s ire it seemed that she cared for nothing beyond the borders of the odd domain she had created in her own head. He’d noticed the change in her that very evening.

At times he had felt sorry for her, his poor Armonia. He was tormented by the fact that her only playmate should be this withered old man she called father. He’d hoped in time that perhaps the other children of the vineto might accept her, or at the very least feign civility. Now his daughter had forsaken all but some character she had concocted by the name of Scarafaggio. Nonetto had no love for him. It seemed that Scarafaggio had succeeded in culling out the girl’s most mischievous tendencies and delighted in constantly courting trouble.

“The Noblidonna said she caught you eating grapes again today!” He’d say to the girl in as stern a voice as he could manage, for in truth he was almost incapable of scorn. “What do you think would become of the fields if we all just ate as many grapes as we pleased?”

“It was only a few.” She giggled. Then, tossing her mane of black curls back defiantly, she looked the old man right in the eye and demanded. “Why shouldn’t I?”

“You’ll make her angry again.” He offered a warning that sounded more like pleading to her ears.

“No matter how good I am she hates me!” The child hissed back, her eyes narrowed. “Why should it matter what I do?”

“Did Scarfaggio put that idea in your head?” Nonetto asked through clenched teeth.

She only ever laughed in reply.

The truth was that my mother had found a friend, just as Nonetto had wished she might. Her friend however came from a world far beyond the vineto, and far beyond the laws imposed by man. Far from having been birthed in her own caprice, Scarafaggio, though boorish and ill mannered, was very much real.

He had taken to spending the bulk of his time with this girl, who he had renamed Guendalina the eve she had christened him Scarafaggio. He told himself he merely tolerated her unyielding questions, and odd compulsions. One of which was her propensity for twining his pale, snowy hair into a plait.

“The maids showed me how.” She’d once told him. “But my hairs too tangled and ratty to do it with.”

He could be expected to sigh and groan as she wound flowers into the long pigtail. Though they’d snatched them together from windowsills and flowerbeds, he always maintained an attitude of offense towards their eventual placement. He was loath to admit that he actually enjoyed the attention. The Fatine, bound together as one mind, seldom doted upon one or another of the tribù.

“So you have all the same memories as your brothers and sisters?” She’d asked him once.

“Yes! Of course” He said, playing at annoyance and falling into laughter. He enjoyed being such a novelty to her.

“Then you’re born knowing everything already?” She marveled.

“Not everything, but the knowledge is there. Some things you don’t really understand until you’re shown how to…well how to…” He struggled to explain the concept to her. Every memory she had was uniquely her own, won from a life that scene by scene had unfolded around her. In a way he envied that freedom, though he couldn’t imagine enduring the tedium of it himself.

Though not every one of his memories was shared, but he wouldn’t tell her about that. He wouldn’t divulge to her that the dreams and recollections of every life he had taken became scarred into his own mind. When he consumed a being’s essence, they became one with him and him alone. He enjoyed these precious vignettes, collected them, though he scarcely understood the visions he saw. Some nights he was perfectly content sit alone in the grass, just as the two of them did now, and rifle through the scatterings of others lives. His brothers survived in him this way, but soon he’d see them restored to life, this girl would secure their fate.

“Some things you have to be shown to understand.” He confirmed aloud to himself.

“Like walking?” She mused. “Or do Fatine know how to walk when they’re born?”

“We know how, but we aren’t strong enough to do it yet, not at birth anyway.” He answered, unable to hold back the grin that was spreading across his face. In the whole of his existence, he’d never teased apart the fabric of his life and inspected it, as this girl child insisted upon doing. The process, he found, delighted him.

“So your mamas’ take care of you until then?” She posed.

“No, not really. We don’t have mamas like you…” He stopped himself, knowing this little girl had been deprived the chance to know her mother, by him. Would she be so pleased to fuss with his hair and wile away the day with him if she knew?

He had thought back on that night endlessly in these past years. Each time he had revisited his act, he struggled to remember exactly why  his brothers and he had seen fit to snatch the baby away. He couldn’t recall any reason or purpose behind the deed. Had they really thought so little of that newborn life that they felt no shame in … no, he’d not even known shame until his brothers had died. That too had been his doing.

It would all be over soon. All the pain and torture he’d lived with these years would end just as quickly as it had begun. He would make things right.

Already he’d won the girl over. It would be easy to entice her back with him. She trusted her darling Scarafaggio. Even now he watched as the poor naïve thing folded herself into his arms, cuddling up to him as if he were her elder brother and not the monster, lying in wait he knew himself to be. In the brevity of an instant, he could have wicked away the life inside of her, stilled her heart and watched her crumble to rot before him.  He could have done it with a brush of his fingertips upon her cheek, and yet, he didn’t.

He told himself it was because of the plan. His carefully crafted plan to get his brothers back. He couldn’t allow himself to deviate. He’d worn the fiddler’s thumb about his neck for a six torturous years now. Surely that was enough time for the old man to realize his folly. How pleased he’d be to learn that the thing was still fresh, still pulsing with life, and in the possession of a Fatine. One who was more than willing to wield his dominion over life and death to mend the old man’s hand, in trade.

How little it would be to ask for the child now, to negate that original barter made for a chance to be whole once again. Once healed, he’d doubtless wish to return to the comfort of the Fatine’s court, from which he had so long been exiled. There he would never need fear death, and the cruel gouges age had carved into his face could be smoothed away as though they had never existed. All would be right again, once the girl was his. Surely his Guendalina would not protest. No, she loved her Scarafaggio, and once he possessed her and returned the fiddler to his people, how could the queens refuse to bring his brothers back? It would be as if the whole horrid business had never transpired at all.

He’d seen them raise the dead from ash, carve new bodies from naught but air and infuse them with the memories of the fallen. It was rare that one among the Fatine was deemed of worth enough to warrant such action, but the return of the fiddler could not very well go unrewarded.

He looked down at the child in his arms, lazily twirling a flower between thumb and forefinger till the petals blurred to a pale amber blaze. Soon she would be rightfully his, but what then? What would he do with her? Bring her back to the Fatine court, where she’d be mauled and made trifle of? Already he found himself dreading their visit’s end and his return to them. There was a part of him that loathed the Fatine, their indifference, and the cruelty it birthed. How could he bring her before a people who saw fit to demand a young boy slaughter his siblings for their own amusement? How could he subject her to that?

No, he would protect her. She would be his after all, what right would the beasts have to her? He’d see that she was happy, he and his brothers would keep her well.

The sun fell low in the sky, cloaking the land in the sanguine curtain of the dying day. The grass sprawled before them became a languid, copper sea, churned by the breath of the cool November winds. Somehow, Scarafaggio thought, the world seemed most alive in these fleeting moments before night’s descent, as if daylight were pleading for reprieve. He was torn from his thoughts by the chimes of distant laughter.

Guendalina sprang to her feet, an explosion of life awakened within her by the sound. She grabbed Scarafaggio’s hand, wrenching him up from his seat in the tall grass.

“It’s starting!” She giggled, clapping her hands together.

“What?” He asked, spinning around to try and locate the source of these voices. He’d let his glamour fall while alone with the child, and prayed that he had not been seen.

“Tutti i Santi Ognissnati!” The child exclaimed. He stared vacantly back in reply.

“I knew you couldn’t really know everything!” She squealed triumphantly, taking both his hands in hers. “Hide yourself, and follow me!”

He did as she commanded, guising himself from all eyes but hers. Had anyone been there to observe, the only sign that she was followed could be found in the parting of the grass behind her, bowing to Scarafaggio’s unseen footfall.

He’d so devoted his attentions to the girl that his eyes had grown blind to all else. Now the Fatine boy found himself lead into a boisterous celebration. The vineto lay bare, stripped of its grapes by the harvest. Yet in their place he found people, enlivened to dance and song.

He’d witnessed such celebrations before from afar, but not until this day had he been plunged into the thick of such reverie. Women danced about, setting their skirts a whirl till they became pale linen flowers. Any memory of sorrow was drowned by the tides of mirth, which seeped through his flesh and rushed into his very veins.

He had fed on human pain before, harvested it as these humans did their grapes, yet never once had he dared to taste of these richer emotions. A strange, but beautiful intoxication overtook him. Had he really allowed himself to exist all these years, deprived the pleasure of feasting upon human joy? What reason was there that such elation could not be cultivated, just as the Fatine nurtured pain? A voice in his head sang back the unspeakable answer, to bring about pain was simply easier.

His contentment had clearly left its stain upon his face, for Guendalina looked up at him with an august grin. Though she did not speak, he could read her sentiments from that expression.

“For all those years of memories you carry around in your head, do you have any that compare to this moment? Do you see how little of us you really know?”

Emboldened, he perched his lips upon a glass, which a young maid was sloshing about in her hand. He drank deeply of what he thought was water within, and was startled by the curious elixir that passed over his tongue. It had a gentle sweetness tempered by the feather soft nip of citrus, and it was salty.

He gasped for a moment. Salt was poisonous to his kind. He’d seen his people desiccated by its touch and yet here he stood, unscathed. He could feel a faint warmth as the drink cascaded down his throat, but nothing that announced the coming of death.

“What is it? What are they drinking?’ He searched the maid’s mind for a name

“Ribolla, young wine.” Her thoughts echoed back. For a moment, she became aware of the intrusion in her head, glancing about with wan curiosity. Indeed she offered the trespass little more regard than she might bestow upon the drone of a passing fly.

Could he truly be the first of the Fatine to know these pleasures? He doubted that. Was it then possible that the memories which filled his head had somehow been purged of such knowledge, and if so why? Why deprive his people of all this?

Together, he and Guendalina passed the night, slipping between the revelers and stealing handfuls of roasted chestnuts. Fatine rarely fed on anything other than emotional aethers and when they dined it was upon flesh and flora gathered from the woods, with no though given to seasoning or flavor. Food was simply sustenance for the body, a chore one occasionally undertook. Now, he had rediscovered food to be one of the greatest pleasures her had ever known. There was the sumptuous warmth of it, which danced upon his tongue, the feel of his lips enveloping each new bite. There was a teasing curtness in the way these fruits resisted his teeth, finally succumbing to his jaw in a fulfilling crunch. He almost hated the thought of swallowing away the bounty, but relished the enthrall of each new mouthful.

They danced, he and his Guendalina. To all eyes that looked upon them, the little girl must have seemed kissed by lunacy, throwing herself about and spinning under force of unseen hands which held in hers.

As the night drew on, the two wandered off to watch the gala unfold from an overlooking hill. The light of blazing torches held all within their glow in an everlasting sunset, daylight granted it’s reprieve by human hands. Here, atop the hill, he could fully appreciate the exposition, and he and Guendalina could speak to one another, without their voices being lost in to the murmurs of the crowd. She revealed a clutch of chestnuts she’d hidden in her apron, and together they gorged themselves.

“Why do they celebrate?” He asked her, infinitely curious about the spectacle he had just witnessed, not in a theived memory, but with his own eyes. “What is Tutti i Santi Ognissnati?”

“Well…” She paused to gnaw upon a chestnut. “Papa says it’s the day you celebrate the harvest, the end of the season, the end of life…”

“Why would you want to celebrate that!” He sputtered back, aghast. Perhaps humans were just as savage as the Fatine after all.

“No, no!” She clarified through a haze of laughter. “You remember the dead.”

“Oh.” He whispered through half parted lips, losing his tongue to reflection. His people hardly acknowledged death among their own. He had perhaps avoided becoming a pariah, but among the Fatine, the mourning of his brothers was seen as maudlin and weak. What was the loss of a single being when all it’s memories and experiences were already knit into the psyche of the collective? Now he wondered if he really did carry the memories of the whole. What if over time, thoughts here and there had been omitted. Perhaps innocently at first, one or two unimportant tidbits dismissed as mere clutter, but where did such deeds end? He desperately wanted to know.

“They say if you’re are good, the souls of the dead will bring you presents in the morning.” She spoke the words through a full mouth, lips wet with spittle.

“I should hope they have better things to do!” Scarafaggio snorted, revealing more of his offense than he was comfortable with.

“Papa leaves them for me, I saw him once.” The girl giggled, then seeing the somber look on her friends face, her laughter was quelled.

“Do you know someone who died?” She asked, setting down her chestnut and once again taking up her friend’s hand.

She hadn’t taken much notice of it before, but his skin was slick, as if he was covered in a thin sheen of oil. Streams of iridescence pirouetted and puddled along the surface of his alabaster flesh. It reminded her of soap bubbles. Pretty as it was, she wondered if this was perhaps some artifact of his upset, or simply an odd trait of the Fatine she’d dimly ignored until this moment.

“You do don’t you? Know someone whose dead.” She reiterated.

He nodded, robbed of his voice by the grip of melancholy upon his throat. Among the Fatine, such a thing would have rooted out only disgust. Here, with this human child, who held scarce enough memories gathered in her six years to truly delve into thought, he found kinship. Was he truly so pathetic? He decided he didn’t care, and squeezed the child’s hand in reply.

“Yes.” He answered. “My brothers died, a long time ago, when you were just a baby.” He stopped himself, scouring through his words, hoping he hadn’t revealed too much. He couldn’t let her know.

She stood, sending  the remaining chestnuts tumbling about her feet, and plucked two of the flowers she had set in Scarafaggio’s hair. She handed them to him. They were of the same kind they had found so bountiful in the town that day, soft golden petals curling into shades of smoldering vermilion.

“These are chrysanthemums.” She told him, folding his fingers around their snubbed stems. “We leave them on the graves of the dead. You can give these to your brothers.”

“Why?” He protested. “They won’t see them!”

“You will.” She spoke softly.  “And you’ll remember.”

He wanted to tell her that he remembered them every moment of every day that he continued on without them. Yet the idea that some ritual existed to make those memories tangible, if only for a single day was consul enough.

“Will you be leaving flowers for anyone?” He asked the girl.

“My mother” came her soft reply.

“Who told you she was dead?” Dismayed, the words bled from his lips before he could remember himself.

“Papa tells me stories, but they’re just because he thinks I’m too young to understand.” She said matter of factly.

“What stories?” Scarafaggio danced about the issue, wondering just how much of the truth had been revealed to her.

“She’d dead. I figured it out on my own.” The child murmured the words with the detachment of one who had long ago accepted an unfortunate truth. At six years of age, she was hardly entitled to such sentiments, yet they were there.

“Besides.” She shrugged. “Everyone says she is. Where else could she be?”

He searched his memory for some glimpse of the woman he had taken this child from all those years ago. He found his memory blanched of all recollection. He knew the mother had been asleep, but her face in his mind was a formless shadow. Had he really paid the woman so little notice? He couldn’t even remember what he had traded the baby for in the first place.

He felt a warmth crawl down his cheek. The sensation was so unfamiliar to him that at first he could not place the name of it.

“Your tears are black.” The little girl said in awe, catching one upon her finger and examining the ebony offering.

Tears? He was crying! All the unrest that he’d held coiled within himself these six years had slithered out through his eyes, and was winding it’s way down his cheeks in hot, wet trails.

Before he fully understood what was happening to him, his Guendalina had wrapped her arms about his shoulders. Undaunted by the tarry streaks that now painted his face, she gently kissed him upon the cheek.

He wept, in part for his brothers but more for the child and what would become of her. He wept because he would be the one to do it. Here was the first creature since Mammina who had cared for him, who had shown him gentleness and affection, and he had thought to use her as a bargaining chip.

In the distance he could hear the dulcet peals of a fiddle’s chirp. The song was so blissful, so full with sweetness that each note hanging upon the air threatened to burst in a honeyed cannonade. He found it hard to harbor sadness with such a song in his ear.

“It’s Papa!” Guendalina whispered.

“Your… Papa?” He stammered in confusion. How could the old man play? He’d been there the night the fiddler had lost his thumb.

“Yes! Come on! Let’s watch him!” She said, scurrying down the hill, Scarafaggio scrambling along behind her.

They wove their way through the sea of bodies. Scarafaggio could see now that it was indeed the old man playing fiddle, without the use of his thumb on the bow. The sound was every bit as tantalizing as he remembered it, but how had he regained his skill?

“But he’s missing his thumb!” Scarafaggio let the words fall errantly from his lips in bewilderment.

“It took him years to learn how again, but he did it.” The child almost sang her words in tune with the song, so overcome by the melody.  It seemed that all who listened became drunk on this enchantment.

Scarafaggio watched in astonishment. His body was drained of all thought, all feeling, as if he’d become a hallow shell, filled to overflowing with mad wonder. All this time, he had simply assumed the old man would rue the loss of his digit, just as he did his brothers. Instead, the fiddler had used these years to retrain himself, to once again ensnare the talent, which had escaped him, while Scarafaggio stagnated in his grief.

He had never accounted for this aspect of human nature, for their resilience and ingenuity. It was at once liberating and horrifying to realize that he had been freed from the shackles of his own invention. His plan no longer had merit, the child no longer need be taken, and his brothers were forever lost.

But he could not abandon the girl. He was fond of the child, and growing more so everyday.

He watched the fiddler play. It seemed, now and again, as if the old man’s eyes met his own. That was impossible of course, he had hidden himself with a glamour, yet the fiddler’s gaze seemed so sure.

When the song had ended, and all the adulations finally died away, the fiddler plucked up his little girl. She waved goodnight to her friend from over the old man’s shoulder. Though he was sure it was only his imagination, Scarafaggio couldn’t shake the notion that the fiddler had turned, only for the briefest of instants, and tipped his hat with an air of recognition.

 

 

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