An excerpt from Dinner With Lady Saturn, the first book in The “Ridotto” series by Marco A. Shatter. Paintings by Marco A. Shatter on display @Art Beat On Mainstreet 330 MAIN STREET, VISTA CA 92084
Chapter 1: Saturn Ascends
San Diego, CA. 2006
It would seem to me that Saturn is a rather unusual name to give a human girl. Saturn of course being the Roman God who famously devoured his children, the name simply doesn’t strike me as particularly winsome and not remotely feminine. Nevertheless, I will have you know that I have indeed made the acquaintance of a women thusly named. Regrettably, I found she was, quite thoroughly mad. This is the story of my first brush with Saturn.
My name of course is Marco, but that’s hardly unusual. Unless you take into account the fact that I’m not a man, or a woman for that matter, but I digress. We were talking about Saturn.
She came into my life just after I had graduated from college. It is a time that for most people is a heady blur of drunken decadence, peppered with repentant all night mortifications, to the looming deity of GPA. I myself, found the social atmosphere to be a terrible annoyance. Admittedly, I’ve never enjoyed fraternising with humans, drunken or otherwise. I was in attendance to get my degree as expediently as possible, before the inevitable questions came.
“Umm, excuse me…”
Oh God, here it comes…
“Where are you from originally?”
Venice, as in Italy, not California. Well not really Italy, Italy, I mean, Venice was a papal state back then, you know?
“Uhh, how old are you?”
150 in March.
“No offense, but are you a boy or a girl?”
Neither, and no offense but I think it’s terribly dull that your species has only two genders.
You see, I’m a terrible liar and all these things are quite difficult to explain to the uninitiated. So, I promptly attained my degree, and washed my hands of University life.
Unfortunately, this meant I also washed my hands of student loans and subsidies as well, which up to that point had been what I was living on. I had attended an American University, where a younger, more trusting me had been encouraged to take out what I now recognise were a reprehensible amount in student loans.
“Oh don’t worry about repaying it.” The loan officer persuaded, “when you graduate, and are a world famous…uh, what’s your major?”
“Psychology.” I’d struggled my whole life to comprehend the human psyche, and felt this would be the best use of my education.
“A world famous psychologist,” She picked up, without missing a beat “you’ll have no trouble paying it back!”
I have never since, and doubt I ever will, (thanks to my hefty repayments) had as much money at my disposal as I did in those years.
A steady diet of television advertisements and my exorbitant allowance had given me both a taste for luxury and the ardent belief that my every problem could be solved for a price. Recognising myself as a rather homely creature, I had sunk the bulk of my funds into resolving this. I spent thousands of dollars on gym fees, therapeutic skin treatments, hair remedies, all in attempts to better meld with humanity.
Now, stripped of my funds, I was horrified that my efforts would be for naught and I would slowly revert into my old, uncultivated, and let’s just say it, inhuman form. Having a degree and no experience, the jobs I took allowed me to sustain on a comparatively paltry income. All the while I was desperately struggling with drugstore cures to hold back my ever-mounting ugliness.
It was while meandering the Internet that I became aware of Saturn and her services. She was a woman who read tealeaves and mixed potions in a time when the practice of magic was seen as Luddite at best and charlatanism at worst.
Supposedly, this Saturn operated an “Alternative Health Spa” in the area, where she put her craft to use, aiding those who sought “ beauty and rejuvenation.” While her site, hosted by GeoCities, was a midden heap of animated gifs, midis and dated pictures of celebrities, there was something about the promised elixirs that bespoke her occult knowledge. That and I was desperate.
I clicked on a flashing button labelled “Get Consultation!!!” with three exclamation points. I was promptly greeted by a picture of a porcelain-skinned beauty wearing a much blonder imitation of Janet Jackson’s iconic hairstyle from “Poetic Justice.”
“Meet Lady Saturn!!!” A scrolling text marquee read.
I could hear the delighted snickering of Florence, my late wife, resurge from my memory. I can only imagine what she’d have to say.
“Marco, you’ve never been the sort who was easy on the eyes, you know that sweetie…” I could hear her coo to me.
“I know.” I murmured to her phantom.
“But if you think some little white girl’s with a head full of dookie braids is going to give you ‘beauty and rejuvenation,’ you’re not just ugly, you’re stupid too!”
“Meet Lady Saturn!!!” The marquee flashed.
And I did, the very next day.
You might imagine that a practitioner of the magical arts would operate out of a dark hovel somewhere, perhaps an abandoned chateau, or even a dishevelled cottage in the middle of a well-hidden meadow. Saturn however, operated out of what had been originally intended as office space. The inclusion of a massage table, a Plano shelf of oils and lotions, and the obligatory “mystic” wall art you might find in a head shop had failed to change the bones of the place.
In the middle of the room, dangling from the ceiling by a chain, there was some manner of hammock. Stirrups dangled down from the sides and I wondered at what kind of odd therapy such a device might lend itself to.
A pair of shut doors hid rooms, which branched off from the main reception area. One was marked “Naughty”, in black airbrushed letters against a backdrop of red flames. The other “Nice” in shades of pastel blue with fluffy white clouds surrounding.
I got a queasy feeling in my stomach as the suspicion overtook me that this was more the type of spa where someone was likely to receive an oil down and a “happy ending” than they were “beauty and rejuvenation.” I had mentioned before I never enjoyed fraternising with humans much. The sweaty, invasive pawing of copulation was something I had learned to tolerate for the love of the right person, but was certainly not something I was willing to depart with my dwindling cash over.
I turned a quick about pace and was heading out the door when I heard a voice.
“Uh Hello? Are you my 2:30?”
I looked over my shoulder to see a voluptuous middle-aged woman, in what looked like a Betty Page wig and a harem girl costume. She had emerged from the seclusion of the room marked “Naughty.” I turned so we might speak face to face, though in truth, she was a good foot and a half shorter than I.
“No Ma’am, I’m afraid I misunderstood what kind of establishment this was.”
Now facing her, I could see that she was a handsome forty something. Though the plastic-vinyl smell of her hairpiece was overwhelming, she was grandiose enough a display of womanhood to where such a thing could be ignored. One could not deny there was a certain fascination to be found in the wriggling folds of her flesh. The fabric of her body spilled in rolling, rollicking tumbles. It rippled and buckled at her joints. Her bosom, both luscious and mountainous, I had little doubt she eked out a more than decent business for herself. The loss of one client shouldn’t be of much importance.
“You a Fae?” She asked, folding a stick of gum into her glitter glossed lips.
“Madame, I didn’t come here to have my sexuality attacked.” I said, offering her a low bow before again turning to depart.
“No, I don’t mean like that. “ She laughed, grabbing my shoulder, “An imp, a goblin, an elemental, whatever you want to call yourself.”
I looked back at her, trying to mould my face into that incredulous look humans give one another when in disbelief. I could tell from her cocked grin I was unsuccessful.
“You have makeup on, but the slimy, puss-white, snail skin of yours bleeds right through it. After a day of powdering your face over and over again, it’s caked up under your eyes and nose.”
I felt at my face, examining my fingertips for the tell tale residue. It was a gesture that induced laughter from the odd woman. When bare, my skin secreted an oily sebum, which swirled and shimmered like the soapy rind of a bubble. It’s really quite striking, if I do say so myself, but decidedly inhuman.
“You must be wearing a wig, albeit it a better one than this mop,” She gathered, “Because Fae hair wont take colour, that is if you have any at all. Some of you creatures come bald as cue balls.”
She was quite correct, I was bald under my beaded cap and rows of flaxen finger waves. Fae hair, when it did grace the head, was invariably shock white. I’d have been happy with a single tuft of it. Chief among the indulgences I’d readily poured money into had been remedies to stimulate hair growth.
“Either way, I saw you sneak a finger under the cap to scratch while I had you waiting.”
“Did you?” I asked dubiously, though I was quite certain I had done just that. The damn thing constantly grated against my bare scalp.
“I watch all my clients before coming out to play, gives me an idea of what I’m getting into, what character I should be.” She tossed back with the nonchalance of a seasoned professional.
“I can also tell,” She continued with her analysis, “That your wearing contacts. Quality ones, I’ll give you that, but they’re glassy. Plus, I can tell from the way you keep blinking. Those things are killing you, but you don’t dare take them out. You wouldn’t want people to see those pure black demon’s eyes. “
Demon, that word held bitter memories of childhood for me. Of all the names assigned to my ilk, demon hits my ear as the foulest cuss.
“I prefer the term Fatine.” I reconciled.
I stared out through the doorway, into the waiting hall, then back over my shoulder at this astute little harem girl. While most humans can sense a strangeness in me, it had been many years since one had known me for what I was at first sight.
“Fatine.” I repeated for emphasis, “We always use the plural because…”
“Yeah yeah, I know, you things are a hive mind.” She finished my thought for me.
“Fatine? Fah-Teen-Ay!” She repeated, giving the accent a theatrical panache as Americans are so inclined to do.
“You Italian?” Her words came sloshed through the wad of gum in her smacking jaws, “You don’t have an accent.”
“Si.” I replied with a smile. “But I’ve lived in The Americas for a good chunk of my life. Quebec mostly.”
“Yeah, they call your kind…what…Lutins there, yeah?”
“Yeaaaaah.” I repeated. She seemed almost too casual considering. It made me wonder at what motives lay bubbling beneath her calm.
“And when did you become a pariah?” Saturn inquired with a knowing grin.
“What makes you assume…”
“If you were still living among your people, in that glorified ant farm- no offense- you wouldn’t be here, looking for tonics and tinctures to keep up the human charade. You wouldn’t use the word I so much either.”
Quietly, I closed the door to the outside hallway.
“You seem rather calm. If you know what I am, then you know what I could do to you.” I postured.
“Sure, drain my aethers, my life forces, feed off my memories, you things still collect memories don’t you?”
I nodded. Memories serve as our most vital nourishment.
“Of course, I have a bag of salt back there,” She motioned to the Naughty room, “I use it for the whip and chain set, grind it into their wounds. I could just toss a handful your way and watch you fizzle out like a slug.”
She knew well enough of my race to understand that salt could desiccate our moist “snail skin” as she had so aptly put it. While our hide in notoriously resistant to injury, mending instantaneously when inflicted, there are two things in the mortal world that garner our weakness. Salt being one of these and iron the other, the only metal that can cut our flesh.
I have learned while living amongst humans- mostly from my own insatiable experimentations with wine – that we can consume salt in moderate portions. More scrupulous Fatine however keep well away from the stuff, knowing the damage it can do. My people wont even cross a line of salt laid down before them.
I began to wonder if this woman was a Fae hunter. I had heard of humans in this practice. Though it wasn’t like a hunter to toy with its prey for so long.
“You’re not at all afraid?” I reiterated.
“You won’t hurt me.” She chuffed confidently, “ You want something from me, and I…” she said, prodding at my chest, “want something from you too.”
“Then I believe we can do business with one another.” I conceded, allowing the corners of my mouth to relax into the slightest of smiles.
“Told you I knew my shit.” The woman snorted, extending a plump, well-manicured hand, bejewelled in stacks of gaudy rings, “I’m Lady Saturn.”
I was taken aback. This woman was a far cry from the vixen that had graced my computer monitor. Shock must have been manifest upon my face, for again, she snorted back in a coarse kind of laughter.
“Yeah, that picture on the website’s about 20 years old now,” She admit, passing a hand before her face and becoming, to my eye, her youthful self once more, “I used that picture back when I headlined at the clubs in New York.”
With another pass of her hand, she wicked the youth from her flesh and was once again her present self.
“You can throw Glamours?” I remarked, impressed with her abilities.
“Necessary in my business.” She sighed, flopping down upon the massage table and sprawling out on her side like some sumptuous odalisque. The ample meat of her belly tumbled forth, a torrent of ivory skin.
A pensive look overtook her, “I don’t see why you don’t? Throw glamours I mean. Wouldn’t it be easier…”
“Requires me to…imbibe too frequently.” I explained, “I don’t like feeding when I don’t have too. There are too many filched memories floating around in this head, most of which I’d have just as soon never seen.”
“Who was he?” She smirked, “a boyfriend, husband…couldn’t hold yourself back?”
“She.” I coughed the word, “and I don’t talk about her.”
I realised that the Lady Saturn had been operating under the assumption that I was a fellow female. Forgivable, as today I wore rouged lips and had donned the beaded black evening gown, which matched my clever headdress. Evening gown? I don’t know why humans relegate certain ensembles to one time of day or another, but I digress.
“You have your secrets, I understand that.” She shrugged, “Can’t just outright tell people you’re a witch either.” She justified, “They either think your some new-age screwball or a Satan worshipper.”
What man calls “witch” is actually an umbrella term for various oddities in the human genome. Some witches hail from long and hallowed lines rare lineage, able to delve into the ethereal. Others are humans who have been in some way touched by Fae magic, and were left forever changed. My people call that sort “Rile”, as in to rile up something up better left alone.
Decidedly more rare and precious are those who simply breach the veil through long devotions of study to the craft. The ease at which Saturn flaunted her skill suggested she was the first make of spellbinder, born to it, and likely a bit jaded as a result.
She slipped off her wig, revealing a short, frowsy mop of rum blond curls.
“You ever read The Compleat Witch, by Anton LaVey?”
I shook my head.
“He says,” She cleared her throat;
“Never forget that you are a woman, and the greatest powers you can employ as a witch are totally dependent upon your own self-realisation that being a woman you are different from a man and that very difference must be exploited!”
“Rather long winded, wasn’t he.” I replied unimpressed.
“Bahh, doesn’t matter…my point is, you got to offer your client something they want up front,“ She flopped on to her back, spreading her legs in the air so as to illustrate just what that something was, “then you ease ‘em into the Bell, Book and Candle bit, and you got a customer for life!”
Jaded indeed! I had spent four years in college studying the nuances of human psychology and this woman had offered me a perfect summation in one sentence.
“That won’t be necessary.” I assured her, “All I want from you is…”
“Oh I’ve got your number.” She said blithely, springing to her feet, and beginning a mad rummage through a cabinet on the wall.
“You’ll need Jasmine oil, for the smell. No offense but you Fae smell like the sorority house bathroom after my sisters and I had an eggnog drinking contest. Not the best idea I’ve ever had.”
“I presume not.” I said, trying to be civil. The intricacies of human conversation have always been things confounding to my mind, their delight in discussing bodily functions with one another being chief among these.
Admittedly, we Fatine do have an odour that is distinctly inhuman, and thusly unpleasant to many a nose. I’ve been told it’s quite sickeningly sweet, somewhere between an obtrusive cinnamon and a mouldering honey baked ham. I think it sounds rather festive myself.
“So, you never told me. When did you become a pariah?” She huffed the words out as she began grinding what looked like a clump of pine needles and beef jerky on a mortar and pestle.
“Since birth.” I admit. It was the truth, though the details surrounding were a bit lurid.
The fizzy haired woman was familiar enough with my people to where she stopped her work, and glared at me, “Your mama’s the human parent then?”
“She was.” I acknowledged, “Dead now.”
“And your people never came to collect you?” She said with a piteous tone that made my stomach lurch, “They always come to collect their own.”
“Guess not.” I shrugged, unwilling to allow this stranger to dig her fingers through my past for mere curiosities sake. I had known enough self-proclaimed witches in my time to where I had learned not to offer my trust too readily.
“When did you become a witch?” I inquired, hoping to change the subject.
“Oh, I dabbled most of my life, but I didn’t get into it actively until I was…oh twenty-five I guess. I used to play all the clubs in New York, I was a headliner you know.”
“A magic act?” I inquired.
The scowl that overtook Saturn’s face told me this was indeed not what she had meant.
“I was a musician!” She said, a wistful expression washing over her, “Musicians are beloved by the …ugh, Fatine, aren’t they?”
“Well, the good ones are.” I half jested.
Indeed, there’s no end to the stories of Fatine gracing especially gifted musicians, artists and the like with magical favours. My people are perhaps the greatest admirers of man’s inventive spirit, even above man himself. However the Fatine are a fickle audience and the punishments for displeasing them are unduly cruel. There are tales of Mothers, who in kindness, have broken the fingers of their musically talented children to spare them Fatine wrath.
“I had an all girl band called the Celestine Sisters.” Saturn continued her monologue, “You know Madonna, Gwen Stefani, Britney Spears, they all worked off of the foundation my music laid.”
“Yes, the Celestine Sisters, I’ve heard of them.” I capitulated.
“No you haven’t!” She snarled back, spitting into the poultice she was grinding, “because I was robbed of my chance to make it big!”
“Will the saliva upset the balance…”
“Big time producers in Hollywood, they got a hold of my demo tape.” She railed with all the animosity a bull in the ring, “and then the Northridge Earthquake happened. The recording studio was destroyed. I was on my way to meet with the executives and wound up being trapped in a city bus for fourteen hour straight. Fourteen mother fucking hours!” She shrieked the words with such vehemence I was certain her throat would rupture.
“ I had to take a shit in the corner of a Goddamned bus, with a bunch of migrant workers watching!” She bawled, “A bunch of filthy, Goddamned Mex…”
“It was a natural disaster, it couldn’t be helped…” I attempted to console her.
I had seldom witnessed so wild a vacillation of character. Gone was the glib, zaftig enchantress I had met moments before. In her place stood a tantruming woman-child.
“It was my mother.” The witch said darkly.
“She’s an Earth Witch, a powerful one. She couldn’t stand the thought of me having my own life.” Saturn fumed, “And so she sent the earthquake and did this to me.”
She motioned to her garish ensemble. A belt of golden coins draped across the flesh apron of her belly, danced and jiggled in what I now saw as a great puckered scar across her abdomen.
“She hurt you?” I said, appalled.
“No!” She snorted, “She forced me to come back and study the craft under her.” She rolled her eyes for effect.
“People died,” I stammered in astonishment.
“I know that.” The witch snorted back, returning to her mortar and pestle with a renewed fervour, “they’re the lucky ones!”
Saturn found words to fill every hour I spent in her presence. I watched as she snatched a caged dove from the room marked “Nice”, babbling relentlessly as she bashed its skull into a pulp. In spite of her chatter, I managed to get in a question here or there.
“If your mother’s an Earth witch, does that mean you are too?” I puzzled out.
“Nope.” She rolled back here answer, “I’m a Flesh Sunder.”
I was taken aback. The Flesh Sunders were an extravagantly rare ilk of the craft, sculptors who use living skin as their medium.
“Then you can fix me…make me look, normal?” I breathed the words upon a tremulous waft of hope.
“Ha! I’m not that good!” She sniped back disparagingly,” still learning the craft really. Always learning.”
While grinding the dove’s brains into a paste, she went on to tell me how she had returned to New York following the earthquake. Her dream defeated, she began training for her current profession under her mother’s tutelage. It had always been a dream of her mother’s to run an apothecary of sorts, but the age of such things had come and gone.
“An Earth witch draws her power from Earth, a Flesh Sunder, well, flesh…and hence the skin trade.” Saturn illuminated.
“What brought you back out to Sunny California?” I pried.
“Oh… you know…witch stuff.” She sputtered back, “Does it matter?”
“No not really. You know, your story is quite unusual…” I remarked.
“Why?” She barked, “Why is that unusual?”
“Well most witches train under their grandmother, or grandfather as the case may be” I explained, “or even their great-grandparents. A woman can’t possibly have a solid mastery of the craft in her fertile crest. There’s too much to learn.”
Saturn’s face percolated with a look of smug aplomb.
“So she was a witch then, your girlfriend, the one you killed?” She hissed.
I was silent, but the look on her face told me that she already knew the answer.
“By all rights I should kill you now, avenge my own.” The words absolutely bubbled forth from her.
“But, you won’t.” I tried.
“No, I already told you, I want something from you.”