As he returned home from the festivities of the evening, Scarafaggio felt a welling sick rise within him. At first he had simply cast it aside as inescapable ebbing of the evenings pleasures. To return to his mundane life after such elation, the feeling of the warm contentment that had enveloped now slowly peeling away would of course be disagreeable. Initially, it was just a feeling of unease. Soon this gave way to strange tremors in his gut. They began as just a fluttering, the flit of a moth’s wing upon the lattice of a spiders web. Slowly, this flit became the furious convulsion of a thing ensnared, so violent that his whole body shuddered at their beckoning. His skin grew hot, as though ever so slowly, it had begun to constrict around him, inciting his innards to churn and boil in rebellion.
Sweat, scalded his flesh. Hot, ebon droplets bled up and clung, thick and viscous upon his brow and cheeks. The onyx beads seared his skin raw where they tumbled, crawling into his eyes where they seemingly ignited; hungry to char away all the beautiful visions they had only just beheld or ever might again.
With frantic hands he tried to wipe the trickling agony away, but succeeded only in spreading the disease, which spilled through his each and every pore, till his whole body had succumbed to it.
He felt the quelling of his gut now rush up through his throat, smothering out his very breath as it clawed its way through him. At long last it burst forth from his mouth and nose with such violence that his traitorous finally body collapsed beneath him.
For a long while he lay there, writhing in a puddle of the inky blackness he’d vomited forth. He could feel the stuff lapping at his skin, slowly devouring the meat that entombed him, and yet he hadn’t the strength to pull himself free of it. The tides of his mind carried him far from this broken husk of a body, back again the vineyard aglow in torchlight, to Guendalina, the wrinkling of her nose and her funny, crooked smile. He became aware of the tickling of flower petals upon the back of his neck. Flowers, she had tucked them into his hair just that afternoon. He was at last compelled to open his eyes. His vision had blessedly been spared. The mantle of night sprawled out above him, littered with stars.
What had it been that overtook him so suddenly? In all the endless volumes of knowledge that the Fatine had stored within their collective memories, he found no record of this. What could have driven his own body to such treachery? He had to know.
Once again he found his footing. He took up a few handfuls of sand and managed to scrub away what remained of the seeping darkness upon his skin and hair. He took a moment to see that Guendalina’s handiwork was still more or less intact, and finding it satisfactory, set out for home.
He had few comforts among his people but his night born palavers with Mammina were among them. While his remaining brothers and sisters slipped further into depravity, drones like Mammina could be depended upon for their benevolence. Perhaps this was why the drones were entrusted with raising the young. Mammina had raised him too well he sometimes thought. The drone had blessed him with such fond memories of childhood that now he was loathe to leave it behind. Once old enough to tend to their own needs, the Fatine seldom acknowledged drones. The creatures were devoid even of gender, and served no function beyond nursemaids. Such base labors as the task demanded left a stain upon all drones, rendering them derelicts adrift among their own people. The thought of sitting and conversing with one, as Scarafaggio did nightly, was viewed as unforgivably asinine, shamefully childish and a hundred other taunts which the Fatine delivered through their collective thoughts rather than waste words upon it.
Though Mammina and his minds were linked, his every memory easily at the drone’s disposal, he preferred to relay the events of his daily expeditions among human kind to it in words. In this way he could relive his dealings once more, flavoring them with his own perspectives and proclivities. It seemed as though Mammina enjoyed the nightly musings as well, for it could always be found waiting, alone in the rookery, for Scarafaggio’s return.
Mammina had taken to calling him by the name the girl child had given him. It couldn’t fashion words from it’s throat, drones having no real need for speech beyond an occasional squawk or squeal of warning. Instead, the drones spoke a language of imagery, which was at once instantly more eloquent and far more beautiful than any smattering of words a tongue might grout together. It was his own mind that insisted upon reforming the drone’s phrases into words and sentences. When Mammina called him by his human name, the word was plucked out from his own memory, sung to him in Guendalina’s voice.
He heard it now as he entered the rookery, that name ringing through his head, garland with alarm.
In the haste of an instant Mammina was upon him, it’s body tearing time asunder so that it might travel to the aid of it’s child. Drones had a tenancy towards the dramatic, but the look of raw dread upon Mammina’s face told him that he’d failed to fully clean away the black dregs his body had spit forth but a few moments ago. From the emptiness around him a peppering of other drones emerged. They were at first no more than pale curls of smoke, bleeding into a cloud of milk white which suddenly solidified into the recognizable form of a body.
Their charges now asleep, the drones were free to swarm upon him, tending to his sullied skin. With frenzied hands they scrubbed at him, coating his body in some strange sort of tallow they seemed to secrete.
All Fatine wore a layer of glistening sebum atop the surface of their skin. The substance he’d been told helped protect the soft tissues of their flesh from being parched by innumerable ills, salts being chief among these. These drones seemed to summon up floods of the stuff from their own bodies, and had proceeded to slather the boy in the viscid fluid. He’d once heard a pair of women speak, while they washed their laundry in the stream, of being able to recognize the Fatine by their cloyingly sweet smell. He imagined the odor that now flooded his nostrils and choked out his breath must have been what they had described. He’d never noticed the fragrance on himself, nor others of his ilk, but to humans, with their rough and arid flesh, this smell must have been quite pungent indeed.
As swiftly as they had come, the flurry of drones now departed, and he was left alone with his Mammina, who flung itself into an embrace about the boy. Mammina was shorter than him now, it’s bald head nestled into the crook of his neck, but this drone was still unmistakably the parent and he the child. In appearance, Mammina looked just as all drones did. It’s body stricken of hair, lithe to the point of fragility. To him however, there was always a sort of kindness kindled in the drones black eyes, the shadow of a smile hinted at the corner of it’s lips, which made his Mammina far more beautiful the rest.
“I’m fine Mammina.” He assured the drone. Uncertain of exactly just what had transpired around him, Mammina’s despair was unmistakable. It was now remorse he felt tear through him. Mammina had been forced to watch two of its wards die; of course the drone would be overly protective of the remaining child from that brood. He thought on his Guendalina, leaving flowers for a mother she presumed to be dead, a mother he had torn her from. He clutched Mammina tightly to his bosom.
The drone looked up at him, a wry sort of smile taking the place of it’s despair. “Not many of us taste salt and live to tell about it.” The drone said in it’s lyrical painted language. “So I must know, what was it like?”
Salt? Yes, of course the wine! The beautiful ribolla, that glass of tart nectar strung together by a ribboning of salt. Had that been what brought on his sickness before? He’d only stolen a sip! No, that wasn’t true. Over the course of the evening he’d stolen a great many sips.
“You must have had a good deal to purge that way.” Mammina remarked.
Purging? Was that what he had done? His body, having taken on the poison, had held it within but so long, and then…
“It isn’t the same as when it touches our skin.” Mammina answered his thought. “It doesn’t eat away at you all at once like it will from the outside. We can eat a bit. The mouth and throat have developed something of a buffer to the stuff.” Mammina said with climbing excitement. Like all drones, assigned the task of nurturing life, Mammina held a fascination with the mechanics of anatomy that Scarafaggio had only just begun to be able to give the appreciation it deserved.
“All living things require it in some quantity, “ Mammina continued. “It’s an elegant system really, I’ll tell you about it sometime if you like.”
“Yes, but not now.” Scarafaggio could but laugh at Mammina’s zeal. How the others could shun these drones and their reserve of knowledge was an endless source of confusion to him. How the drones tapped such wealths, which he and his siblings could not, was even more so a mystery. More and more it was becoming clear to him that the Fatine were not one unified mind after all.
“Explain purging to me.” He entreated.
Mammina’s was enraptured by the opportunity. “When the body hits a threshold, it has to void the offending substance, which results in the process I imagine that you are now well acquainted with!” Mammina said, folding it’s arms curtly across it’s chest.
“Why wouldn’t I know that?” Scarafaggio pried.
“There’s no need I suppose.” Mammina said with a shrug. Then, a smirk bridling it’s lips, the drone remarked. “Most of us never test the waters the way you insist upon doing.”
“Yes, yes.” He said with a flip of his hands, as if shooing it’s words away like a swarm of flies. “But if all our memories are collective…”
“They are not.” Mammina said adamantly. “Some are, yes, but there’s no reason for your thoughts to be tangled up with scraps and tidbits on how to properly nurse your infant brothers and sisters as mine are. There’s no need for a drone like me to comprehend…coitus.” The word brought a slight scowl to Mammina’s face. “Beyond the business that comes after.”
“Can’t I decide for myself?” He whimpered the words. The tone of his voice startled him. Perhaps he was just as supine as his brothers and sisters thought him to be.
Mammina made it known with a smile that it did not think this so. It took the tail of his long, now bedraggled braid and examined it. “Perhaps you’ve walked among the humans too long…or not long enough, I can’t decide.”
The words gave him pause. Could Mammina really suppose that his newfound desire to comprehend his existence in more than just shards and glimpses was merely the influence of time spent among humans? Though he had to consider that perhaps it was. Perhaps he was envious of the lives they lived, unhampered by the desires of any but their own self. To be human was to walk in ignorance for the most part, but an ignorance livened by the joy of discovery and potentially endless reawakenings. It was to die, and have your life and memories forgotten by time, and yet it was to eternally cling to secrets that would perish along with the one they had been entrusted to. He wondered what secrets Guendalina held, and then with a painful reckoning, he realized that he kept one very terrible secret of his own from her.
“Do you remember my mother?’ He asked Mammina.
He instantly regretted having voiced the question. Mammina had come to think of itself as his mother, and what reason had it not to do so? The drone had raised him, cared for him. The being loved him in a way that was almost unknown to their kind, he even called the thing Mammina, and yet he had the audacity to yearn for another. One who had no knowledge or memory of this child, but whose body his life had begun within. It was the one aspect of motherhood Mammina could never itself accomplish.
“I’m sorry.” He whispered. “It’s just that…”
“Yes.” The drone said, crestfallen. “I remember her.” Then with a wistful smile, Mammina confessed. “I was the one who chose her to carry you.”
Breeding among the Fatine is something I’m quite certain would be seen as a thing infinitely curious to the human populous. Scarafaggio knew well enough that two Fatine could not interbreed. Instead, a human host was selected, one whose line possessed certain characteristics that might prove advantageous if adapted to the Fatine. It was a long, involved process, far from the spontaneity and ardor that accompanies human couplings.
In most cases, the human host was male and a female of the tribù was selected to carry his seed. In Scarafaggio’s case, it was his mother who had been human. It was exceedingly rare but not unheard of. He knew of his father, but it must be understood that among the Fatine, this title does not hold the reverence it does to humans. Ever since his dealings with Guendalina, a curiosity about the woman who’d carried him for nine long months had begun to fester in mind.
Had his father assumed a glamour, taking on the form of this woman’s husband or lover? Or perhaps he had courageously worn his own skin, and taken the time to court and seduce the womb he’d till. Was that a kinder or crueler fate?
Then there was the collection of the child. He knew the Fatine came in the night, inducing labor and leaving the poor mother painted with her own blood to morn the failed pregnancy come morning. He’d heard that sometimes, the women awoke during the process, what horror that would be! Had his mother seen the thieves who stole her child? Some nights the thought consumed him. Had his mother been rattled from her slumber so? Had she awoke to a sea of black eyes, all staring pitilessly upon her? He wondered if she had begged to keep her baby, or if Guendalina’s mother might have done the same had she awoke in time.
“Why did you chose her?” He asked Mammina. “Was she beautiful?”
“I wouldn’t know.” The drone said bemused. “She was… well suited” Mammina finally determined. “It would be difficult to explain to you as to why.”
“Tell me what she was like.” He said, tugging at the loose threads Mammina had exposed in this conversation in the hopes of unraveling the whole story.
“Why should it matter?” Mammina questioned. “You’re here now, you are what you are.”
“I don’t know.” Scarafaggio relented. “It just does.”
The drone closed it’s eyes, lost to contemplation for a long moment. When again it’s eyes reopened, there was a somberness floating in their dark waters Scarafaggio had not seen the likes of since the day his brothers died.
“I will take you to her.” Mammina said.
“How could you know where she is?” Scarafaggio wondered. Had she been so nearby all this time? Perhaps they had crossed paths in the street before, neither knowing whom the other was.
“The language of every human’s blood is unique. “ Mammina explained dourly. “I could find her again no matter where on this Earth she hid herself. I’ve just never had reason to.”
“Why would she hide?” Scarafaggio started, but he could see from the exasperation in Mammina’s face that this was not the time for such a line of questioning.
The drone took his hand in it’s own, and together they travelled. The dimension of time was splayed open, and they journeyed many miles in the ravishing of an instant. Though all Fatine could travel this way, few but the drones ever made use of the gift. They were in so many ways almost as separate a race as humans were, and yet even humans and his own kind were inextricably bound to one another.
They journeyed over great stretches of ocean, waves made frozen crests as existence was held mired by the slavish pass of hours and minutes. They slipped between the corporeality of great stone parapets and the brick walls that lay scattered about like fallen leaves before them. These were cities and streets, yet he could not make out just where Mammina had carried him.
When at last they were still, it seemed to Scarafaggio that his mind still raced on ahead of him. It took him several moments to once again collect himself, which seemed to restore a smile to Mammina’s face, transient as it was.
“Watch.” Mammina instructed, pointing a frail finger towards a woman now before them, kneeling upon the tile floor of a modest but well loved home. “But do not reveal yourself.”
“Is that her” Scarafaggio asked, inching forward. Mammina gave him a derisive look as if to ask whom else he presumed it might be.
Scarafaggio watched this woman, his mother. She was stooped over several bundles of flowers, which she was separating out into ordered piles. Scarafaggio recognized these as the chrysanthemums the humans left for their dead, what tragedy that she had known so many who had fallen. She was still young in human terms, hardly more than thirty. Her tawny skin was still fresh with life, and her dark eyes, though wet with tears, were not yet clouded by age.
Sweat kissed her brow, yet she continued with her labors. He wanted very much to see her hair but found it had been tucked under a strange sort of cap she wore upon her head, hiding all but her face away from sight. Atop this curious cap she wore a black veil, which cast shadow upon the lower quadrants of her face. He wanted to see her lips, her chin, were they like his? He moved to gently lift the fabric away but was discouraged from doing so by a forceful yank on his plaited hair delivered by Mammina.
“Don’t touch her!” Mammina warned. “It isn’t fair to disrupt their lives.”
“We’ve already done that!” Scarafaggio scoffed back.
He was close to her now, close enough to hear the draw and fall of her breath, close enough to smell the fragrance of the cut flowers she meticulously sorted. He knelt before her, unwilling to reveal himself and yet at the same time hoping she might sense him. Sometimes they did.
In the shadows of the hallway he saw other women pass, all dressed in the same garb his mother wore. Their bodies hidden in a long black gown, heads draped in that same peculiar veil, he wondered what the purpose of such garments were. Perhaps they kept bugs from biting their skin, or perhaps these women were all strangely disfigured, and had been sent here, away from the mocking glares and whispers offered them in the streets. Around their necks they wore a peculiar beaded necklace with two crossing branches dangling pendulously from one end. He’d seen these crossing branches on graves before, and the steeples of churches.
He watched as his mother took two of the flowers from the piles, stood and carried them to a nearby windowsill, where she set them down. She muttered a few incomprehensible words, then returned to her business of sorting the flowers. As she crossed the room, the lamplight illuminated her face, and Scarafaggio swore he spied a glimpse of himself within her shrouded features.
“What are those flowers for?” He asked, delving into his mother’s thoughts for an answer.
“For the baby they took from me.” Came her mind’s reply.
“Who?” Scarafaggio demanded. “What did you see?”
He was rewarded with a glimpse through this woman’s eyes at the moment of his own birth. In a room lit only by the azure light of the moon, he saw the mocking faces of Fatine, laughing over the body of a frightened teenage girl, mocking her pain, no, savoring it. He saw the blood trail down her thighs as she was forced into the undulating dance of birth, and watched as over eager hands were thrust into her, tearing the newborn babe, he now knew to be himself, free.
“Demoni” Her lips parted, and she spoke the words aloud. “Demoni.”