Scarafaggio spent the night on the cold tile floor, wrapped in Luciano’s overcoat. His hosts slept in a bedroom down the narrow hallway of these cramped quarters. While they took their rest, he teetered somewhere between where dreams buttoned upon reality, a hostage, raped by the conjurings of his still aggregate mind. Awake or asleep, these visions toyed with him regardless. Though he knew the alloggio had been sealed with salt, he watched as the walls danced with ripples, arching out in great sweeping rings as the leering faces of his many siblings emerged. They bubbled up from the plaster, like waves coming to crest, then fell away in a mad splattering. Soon the walls seemingly boiled with the trespasses of his curious kin. Each wore a lascivious grin, delighted by their pluck at having dared to breach the threshold. He knew full well that they could never truly cross the salt barrier. What fading traces of rationality still clung to him maintained it was doubtful so many would physically risk the journey. Yet by inducing these delusions the Fatine had accomplished their goal, rupturing any peace that might have still lingered within him.
When he managed to drift into something like slumber, he was harangued by visions of Guendalina. She would take his hand, brandishing her apple cheeks and the cockeyed smile he delighted in drawing from her. Then, at the beckoning of his touch, her flesh would wither away. He’d watch helplessly as the frail skin of life, which cloaked the tangled workings of her body, burnt away like ash on pyre. He was helpless to ignore the allusion to his brothers’ demise.
He was haunted by the echoing call of a disembodied babe, which rang through the halls. He watched as the tiles bent and reshaped themselves beneath him, giving form to this phantom voice as a sea of infant corpses, shrieking in agonized chorus. Some of these bodies had been gutted, setting entrails free to snake about the floor and tether around his wrists and ankles. Others had abandoned their bodies all together and remained as severed heads. These specters rocked back and forth, pushing off from the floor with their rot-addled chins as they dispatched their shrill cries. He tried to kick one of these sorts away with his bare-foot, managing only to part a bit of moldering flesh from its shrieking face. The maimed thing looked up at him, wailing accusatorily, the strain of it’s exposed bone and musculature now visible.
It was not until the taunting serene of dawn stole through the shudders that these visitations were interrupted by Arabella. He watched through the hazy intoxication of dread as she approached. Her amber gold eyes were the only things visible upon her shadow-cloaked form. They gleamed in the dark, making her gaze more like that of a famished wolf than the delicate beauty he’d encountered only a few hours prior. As she came closer, he saw that one of those worm-riddled babes had climbed her nightdress and wound itself into her arms. As she bent down to meet Scarafaggio’s eye, the tiny corpse that clung to her turned it’s head towards him. It’s eyes too were forged of that same savage gold. The infant smiled, tearing the flesh of it’s cheeks asunder, and freeing it’s jaw to tumble to the floor. From the gaping hole that remained, the babe vomited forth a great muculent worm. The sludge slathered thing wriggled it’s way onto Scarafaggio’s belly and up around his neck, winding tighter and tighter, milking life’s breath from his lungs.
He felt a scream rising from within him, but Arabella smothered it out with the palm of her hand.
“Nothing you see is real.” She spoke, her voice stern, but a watchful tenderness lay veiled beneath. “Scream and you’ll have our neighbors breaking down the doors. Trust me, that kind of attention is the last thing we need.”
He took a few breaths, gathering himself, then nodded obligingly. Arabella pulled her hand away and lifted a strange kind of amulet from around her neck. The rotting child in her arms batted playfully at the stone which dangled from it, tearing away a few of it’s decay bridled fingers in the process.
“Forgive me, I forgot what it could be like. Dream warfare, there’s no hiding from your own mind” She said apologetically, placing the pendant over Scarafaggio’s head. The moment she did, all the trepidations that had bound him fell away, sinking back into the floors and receding into the walls in a hurried retreat from the stone around his neck.
“What is it?” He asked, examining the pendant as best he could in the dim light piercing through the shudder slats.
It was as if a tempest had been captured within it’s polished form. Clouds now halted in their endless windborne tumble were locked within the stone. From their hazy featherings, bold whips of glacial blue lightening had stolen free. These too had been rendered latent, now existing as mere threads, weaving in and out through their frozen world and revealed only by the frivolous play of light.
“Labradorite, just a rock really…but mind you don’t take it off.” Arabella advised with a smile he found stirring in it’s earnestness.
She was so beautiful in that moment, not only in the reprieve she offered, but also in the exquisite make of her form, kissed by the pale blue of first light. It painted her skin over in shades of silver and pearl, making her citrine eyes all the more beguiling. He would look back on the moment, startled by how reflexive his actions had been when he had leaned forward to kiss her.
She laughed, playfully pulling away from the thrust of his lips. Her words came to him not by voice but on the tides of his own mind. “I am not in love with you little boy.”
He was startled. No human, other than the fiddler of course, had ever stolen into his head this way. He hadn’t known such a thing to be possible for those who had not been collected by the tribù. Spying the look of bewilderment that had taken him, she laughed gently.
“Poor Francesco,” She trilled to herself. “He has no idea what he’s opened the door to.”
“Francesco? The fiddler? What do you mean?” Scarafaggio tumbled over his own tongue, crawling towards her on hands and knees made foible by fatigue. This was the second night in his scant few years of life that he had not joined with his brothers and sisters in the torpor. There in collective slumber, he would have been nourished upon the much aether collected, his body mending the tolls of the day. He was frightened by how weary he found himself so short a while without the tribù, but not enough to return.
“Try and get some sleep.” She cooed sweetly. “I’ll let Luciano know you had a trying night.”
It was only as she slipped back down the corridor that Scarafaggio noticed the child she held in her arms was still very much present, though stripped of death’s patina. His mind rattled with questions and worries, but he found his body too tired to sustain consciousness. One by one his fears and queries drifted away as sleep enshrouded him.
Now and again, as he wove in and out through the fallow plains of slumber, he was made aware of the rustling of bodies around him, and conversations taking place.
“I should have thought to give the stone to him, I can’t believe…”
“He’s fine, just look at him…perfectly content. Hush or you’ll wake him.”
“It’s just that I went through this myself, Dolce, I should remember these things!”
“Actually, he reminds me a lot of you back then…”
“Don’t tell me that…I’ll have to keep him locked up in the pantry at night.”
“Make sure you suggest that to Franco.”
He could tell the banter was lighthearted. A time or two he thought to respond, but found himself too wound in nod to venture reply. He slept till late into the morning, perhaps even into noon, the sun having climbed to the very heights of the azure sky by the time he was ready to reenter the waking world again. He slept past the hour when dew ornamented the grass and the mourning doves sang their somber song.
The thought of Guendalina finally roused him to wakefulness. It was a vision of her sitting all alone in the tall grass, waiting for him to come at last that finally brought him to his feet. He clothed himself in the heavy wool overcoat that had served his blanket and went to join the voices that had bubbled over into his dreams.
Arabella was the first to greet him. She stood alone in the kitchen, her nightdress unlaced, exposing the soft auburn swell of her bare breasts. There she held the babe he’d first seen last night. The pudgy thing suckled ravenously, oblivious to Scarafaggio’s entrance or even his existence. It seemed a cruel reminder of the demands his body now made. Not only his lustful appetites had been awakened, but the void within his belly had begun to wring and gnash his guts in dissent. It was a new agony, one he did not like at all.
He was unaware of how long his gaze lingered at her bosom till she lifted his chin with her free hand, bringing his eyes to meet hers.
“Did you sleep well?” She inquired matter-of-factly.
He nodded, words failing him as he gazed into her honey coloured eyes.
“We’ve saved some eggs for you.” Luciano called from the corridor, dashing into the kitchen at a frantic pace. She stopped for a moment, looking quizzically at the boy buried in her overcoat. “Do you know how to eat them?”
Again, Scarafaggio shook his head. He’d seen eggs in nests throughout the woods, but never once had he been inspired to put one in his mouth and consume it. The idea actually made him a bit sick, but his body yearned for sustenance.
Luciano drew two eggs from a satchel at her waist, pried opened the boy’s hands and gently cradled one of the eggs within his fingers. It was strange and lovely, larger than the ones found nestled between arbor bow and limb. He turned it over in his hand, admiring it’s smooth alabaster shell, and the elegant sweep of it’s curved form. Smooth, continuous contours gently narrowing on one end, then flaring wide and triumphant on the other.
The egg held no such fascination for Luciano, who took the other of the pair, and in one quick motion bit through it’s crisp shell, slurped out the mire within and crunched away the remains in her gnashing teeth. Scarafaggio tried to mimic this display and succeeded only in shattering the shell in his jaws, splattering the yoke about his face and hands. He hungrily licked what remained from viscous trails running down his fingers and wrists, finding the taste quite unremarkable, and hardly enough to sate him.
“They’re the perfect food. Everything the body requires!” Luciano lauded.
“Not the way you eat them.” Arabella protested, doing her best to hide the smile that had risen to her lips at the boy’s awkwardness.
“I’ll fix some for you properly when we’ve more time.” She spoke again to him without voice, shoving a lump of bread into his mouth.
“Don’t give him that!” Luciano complained. “It’s expensive these days!”
“You mean it’s harder to steal?” She said casually, her attentions devoted to the infant.
“Is it yours?” Scarafaggio asked as Luciano bent to lay a kiss upon the child’s forehead. The soldier graced him with a look of genuine bewilderment, as if she’d never entertained words so splendidly idiotic.
“I’ve seen you change yourself. Can you do…THAT? “The boy flummoxed, motioning to the suckling babe.
His hosts looked at one another, then erupted into laughter, the baby clutching at its mother’s jostling breast to keep it stalwartly at lip. In Luciano however, the laughter hinged upon unease, guised though it was, Scarafaggio could sense it.
“You mean to ask if I can make another woman pregnant?” The soldier spoke with suspiciously gathered calm. Scarafaggio nodded.
“No,” she replied with a long drawn sigh. “I’m afraid that’s beyond my abilities.” She delivered her words with a laboured grin. “THAT which you are referring to by the way, is Luciano the second.”
“But he’s not yours?” Scarafaggio reiterated.
“I said as much.” She replied, her words graveled by indignation.
“We mostly call him Doppio, double, so there’s no confusion.” Arabella spoke as conciliate. It seemed the subject of her child’s origins was a thing she knew full well could summon the worst in her soldier.
“Doppio.” Scarafaggio murmured, looking upon the tiny creature in Arabella’s arms and caressing it’s plump cheek. Doppio however had little care for things beyond his mother’s breast.
“We’re off to a late start today.” Luciano spoke abruptly, eager to change the subject. “We should have been at the vigneto hours ago. I’ve some things to discuss with the fiddler and…”
The rest of her words were lost as Scarafaggio’s mind was drowned by visions of Guendalina, sitting alone. It was as if she were calling to him, though he knew that was impossible. He watched as she idly fiddled with a blade of grass, waiting patiently for her Scarafaggio to join her. He had once thought of the girl as “his” Guendalina, but each day it became more evident to him that he in fact belonged to her. It was a yoke he welcomed around his neck.
He rushed towards the door before remembering the barrier of salt that held him within these walls. He was quickly reminded as he reached for the doorknob, and felt the hot sick of purging threaten to climb his throat and rain out from his pores. It seemed so foolish a thing to be held by. Why could he simply not step over the glittering trail? He’d taken the stuff into his body and lived after all! It was a repulsion all his people shared. Whether it was rational or no, he knew he could not cross that line.
“Arabella will sweep a path for us when you’ve dressed.” Luciano assured him, ushering the boy away from the barrier.
“I’m already dressed.” Scarafaggio griped as he pulled at the shoulders of the bulky overcoat, which floated around him. Luciano simply shook her head in retort.
“That’s a soldiers coat, and you my boy are no soldier. Go ahead and take it off so I can see what we have to work with.”
Scarafaggio did as he was told, letting the overcoat fall away to the floor.
Luciano put a hand thoughtfully upon her chin, looking over the boy’s slender frame.
“Do we have any leathers that might fit him?” She asked Arabella.
“I might have some… from before the baby.” She remarked.
“That’ll be fine, they don’t have to be pretty, so long as they’ll fit under his clothes.” Luciano concurred as she threw open a large trunk pushed up against a wall. With shocking alacrity, and careless abandon she began pulling out vestments of various makes and colours. Most were militaristic, and age had wearied their threads, but they were clean, and would serve their purpose well enough.
Arabella disappeared down the hall, to retrieve the promised articles of clothing.
“What do you mean by leathers?” Scarafaggio asked, puzzling over the word. He knew well enough what leather was, but had never heard of it being worn as an underpinning beneath clothing before.
Luciano reached into the pocket of her discarded overcoat. Scarafaggio looked down upon the coat as though it was a skin he had just moments before shed. It was only then that he realized he had become aware of his nakedness.
“You see these gloves.” Luciano asked, pulling the black leather pair from her coat pocket. “There’s a woman, a leatherworker, who makes these for us. It’s tanned by a special process, honestly I don’t know what she does, but it offers us some protection against Fatine persuasions.”
“Tanned in Fatine blood.” Arabella’s voice rang from the hallway.
“He could have done without knowing that just yet Mia Dolce.” The soldier grumbled back.
“I already have Fatine blood.” Scarafaggio contested, disgusted by the idea of cannibalizing his siblings and parading about in the fruits of their demise . “What good are they?”
“Don’t let it scare you,” Luciano chuckled to herself. “In this case the benefit outweighs the cost.”
Scarafaggio thought back to last night, how he had tried to draw life aethers from Luciano and failed. It had been these leathers that had shielded her from his attack. In that moment a dread overtook him. One he knew he should have entertained sooner, and yet between the madness of false visions and the newness of a life beyond the tribù, he’d only just now touched upon it. He, quisling that he was, would now be pursued by an enemy, one with many hands and many eyes scattered about the city, one who had no desire other than to snuff out his thoughts and consume whatever ephemeral matter it was that gave him mind to use it. They’d do it as much to silence the disquiet he created as out of the joy delivered through torment. He’d delighted in such fare once, been among their legions, and he knew they would not relent. Suddenly the idea of a few among their ranks being bled dry was far less offensive to him.
“I’ll wear them.” He agreed. It seemed a small sacrifice to make if it might help him serve guardian to Guendalina.
Luciano, obviously gleaning these thoughts failed to fight back a boisterous grin that surged across her face. “What exactly is it you and the girl spend so much time talking about?” She inquired.
“Probably the same nonsense we used to talk about.” Arabella’s voice entered the room before she did. She reemerged from the hallway, leathers draped over one arm and a baby bouncing in the other.
Scarafaggio took the glistening black cloth from their perch on the crook of her arm and examined it. He could plainly see the swirls of iridescence upon the hide, the leavings of Fatine blood. The cloth was almost beautiful in a way. He thought of how Guendalina might compare it to the metallic sheen of beetle wings. The ensemble seemed simple enough, and he tried to pull these leathers over his head.
“We talk about…everything!” He said in answer to the soldier’s question. His voice muffled as he struggled to wriggle into his new armor. “Sometimes we talk about human holidays and bugs, or bees, which are bugs but…oh and today the fiddler was going to tell me about the time he met the emperor!”
“Ferdinand? Of Austria?” Luciano cried out with umbrage, throwing the yellowed work shirt she held in her hands upon the floor in mild protest.
“No!” Scarafaggio corrected, peering through what he hoped was the opening his head was meant to go through. “The emperor of all the hives…like bees, from France.” The boy tried, realizing he only succeeded in sounding a fool before his hosts.
He looked the part too, his arms wound up in a leather tangle, head completely swallowed up save for one exposed eye, which he hoped conveyed enough desperation that Luciano might assist him.
The soldier chuckled. “You mean Napoleon.” She managed to decipher. “Well, you seem excited about that.” Her voice rang hallow with disinterest as she pulled the boy free from the leather morass he’d wound himself into.
“He’s a male queen!” Scarafaggio exclaimed incredulously.
He failed to understand how a fellow Fatine could not understand the marvel of such a thing. Males in his court were indolent creatures, existing only to spread their seed when called upon. How wondrous that one of his gender might accomplish so much more.
“In a way he was like the queens I guess.” She laughed to herself. “He was certainly misguided.”
With a practiced hand she laced him his new underclothes. There was a series of grommets and lacings along the back of each arm and leg to the knee, even a line of them running down the length of his spine. He doubted very much he’d ever be able to do up these wretched things without Luciano’s assistance.
“The queens were born to their position, but Napoleon had to fight to reach his. That’s a curiosity even in the human world. He was a true warrior!” She lauded.
Impassioned by the thought of battle, she pulled the lacings along Scarafaggio’s back as though they were the reigns of a misbehaving horse, squelching his breath away in the process. Hearing him gasp, she relented, loosening the leathers just a tad.
“I met the man too, but that was back when he was only a general. I suppose you’re not interested in that.” She beckoned spryly, fingers drumming upon his shoulders in anticipation of an answer.
“What’s a general?” Scarafaggio asked, plucking up a waistcoat from the scatter of clothes Luciano had strewn across the floor.
“No, that’s definitely too big for you.” She said disapprovingly, snatching it from his hands and pacing, or rather trudging through the veritable quilt she’d left upon the ground. “Let’s see, a general is a high ranking officer who…”
“What’s an officer?” Scarafaggio pried further, drawing a groan from his host’s lips.
“When humans are going to fight one another, in a war, they form …well, they break off into groups let’s say, teams, based on what it is they want. Do you follow me?” She said with gently guised perturb, combing her fingers forcefully through a thatch of white hair that had dared to fall lank upon her brow.
Scarafaggio nodded reticently.
“The generals are the respective leaders of each group, who decide the best way to defeat their competition.” She explained collectedly.
“And the emperor was one of those?” Scarafaggio clarified. He couldn’t imagine having the wherewithal to dictate not only his own moves, but also those of countless others. This male queen was quite extraordinary to be sure.
She gave a single, curt nod. “He was a scrawny little thing back then, no offense.” She offered, nodding to Scarafaggio’s boyishly concave chest and rawboned arms now swathed in scintillating blackness. It was a needless concession on Luciano’s part however, as he’d never given much consideration to his form, “scrawny” as it may have been.
“He was a good man, soft-spoken but smart, brilliant actually. He had a horrible temper though. Of course, I was just a child back then, and I wasn’t always on my best behavior.”
“She used to steal the soldiers’ laundry.” Arabella laughed. “That’s where most of this mess comes from.” She said, motioning to the clothing piled in swelling heaps upon the floor. Scarafaggio wished he’d had such a mattress to lie upon last night.
“I never stole anything.” Luciano protested with a grin. “I always left something in trade. That’s how Napoleon, the emperor, and I became acquainted.” She crowed.
“Acquainted?” Arabella purred with an amused smirk tugging the corner of her mouth. “He caught her stealing, turned her over his knee and spanked her till she cried.”
“Nonsense, I never cried!” Luciano insisted. The memory sparked movement in her fingers and she rifled through the trunk, now in wild pursuit. She retrieved a pair of pale breeches, which the passage of years had granted an ivory tarnish.
“These” She remarked, brandishing her prize boastfully “your emperor gave me these off his own body in trade for a bottle of Courvoisier.”
Arabella shook her head, making known there was more to the story than Luciano had revealed.
“Try them on.” She invited, tossing the things into Scarafaggio’s fumbling hands. “I think they might be the only pair I own that won’t wind up down around your ankles.”
Scarafaggio did as he was told, pulling the breeches over his strange leather underclothes. Luciano nodded her head in approval.
“He’ll look outdated, and overly formal, but it’s better than the alternative.” She offered.
“He’d need a shirt to look formal.” Arabella simply said, propping Doppio upon her shoulder to burp him.
“I’ll find him one!” Luciano insisted. “You’ll be under a glamour anyway,” She explained to Scarafaggio, so it won’t really matter, but it’s best you get into the practice of dressing yourself. I’m not even going to try getting shoes on you yet.”
“Teach me to do what you do.” He begged as Luciano held different shirts across the boy’s shoulders, gauging the eventual fit. “Teach me to change like you can.”
“The Ritratto? It takes months to learn a thing like that!” Luciano laughed the suggestion away. Scarafaggio moved to protest but the soldier made it clear with a penetrating gaze that the subject was not up for further discussion.
“Your girl is expecting you to show up with that face.” She said, pinching his cheeks teasingly. “She’ll be able to see you regardless, and that’s all you should be concerned with right now.”
Scarafaggio was quite proud of his appearance as they left the alloggio. Arabella had gathered his hair into a tidy braid, which trailed neatly down his back. It could have done with some of Guendalina’s embellishments, but there’d be time for that later. He busied himself with another inspection of his billowing shirtsleeves, and woolen waistcoat while Luciano tried to coax her lover into accompanying them on their journey. The soldier had returned to the more swarthy masculine form she’d worn when Scarafaggio had first made her acquaintance.
“I’ve the baby to look after.” Arabella insisted.
“So bring him along.” The soldier entreated. “Unless he has plans beyond eating and sleeping all day…”
“You know I can’t.” The amber-eyed beauty said, casting a glance at her new houseguest as if to suggest that he was the reason why.
“I don’t like you spending your days alone mia dolce.” The soldier spoke sweetly, knowing this was an insurmountable battle.
“I’m not alone, and I’ll be perfectly safe.” She contended, bowing her head away from her lover’s eye. She looked down at the babe tugging upon arrant strands of hair, which had slithered free from the tousled pile pinned atop her head.
Luciano relented, departing without words of goodbye. Instead, he left his family with a kiss upon their cheeks, setting out for the vigneto with Scarafaggio in tow.
They walked in silence for several miles, Scarafaggio unseen by his fellow travellers. It seemed the glamour had been unnecessary, as the folk who passed both the soldier and him walked with their heads downcast. All were too consumed by their own business to even acknowledge another human being, lest they become an obstacle in their path.
“She won’t come with you because of me?” Scarafaggio finally gave voice to the question that was haunting him.
Luciano nodded his head.
“Is it because I tried to kiss her?” He posed.
The question was met with a barrage of laughter from Luciano. “No, no, don’t worry about that.” He assured the boy. “That feeling you get.” He said, rapping his knuckles upon his chest. “It’s a defense their kind has against us, one they have no control over. I imagine your Rile girl has a touch of it too.”
“Their kind? Do you mean humans?” Scarafaggio asked.
“In a way.” Luciano replied, his voice still choked by laughter. He took a moment to cobble together his senses once again, then resumed.
“She is what all humans will one day become. There’s not a drop of Fatine blood in her line, which is rare in this world. Our kind has actually stifled their advancement as a species with all our fiddling about.”
“But what is she?” Scarafaggio said with climbing insistence. He thought back on how she had breached his mind with her words. It was she who had given him the amulet he now wore around his neck, protecting him from dream warfare as she’d called it. He couldn’t accept that this woman was to be counted as just another body sloshing about in the sea of humanity.
“They call them Sutradahr, it means puppet master in Hindi, but don’t worry about that. What you need to know is that obtaining one of them is first priority among your queens.”
“What exactly can they do that makes them so valuable?” Scarafaggio found himself desperate to unravel this mystery, greedily snatching up every thread offered in the hopes of doing so.
“That’s a conversation we’ll have later on.” The soldier assured him. “When your mind’s your own. Just know that so long as you’re still part of the tribù, you pose a danger to her.”
“If that’s true,” He baited “then why would you invite me into your home?”
Luciano nodded, admitting to the apparent logic of this.“ Because my friend, that remains to be the one place we can protect ourselves. There we have control over our surroundings, we can fortify them. All we need do is lay down a ring of salt, scatter a dozen other enchanted odds and ends around, and the Fatine are kept at bay.”
“Or trapped inside.” Scarafaggio countered.
“It’s a concession I’m willing to make.” Luciano replied, with a cocked brow. “You stay on with that little girl of yours, and that’s something you’ll receive a splendid education in.”
Scarafaggio mulled the words over in his head a bit. He realized that he’d never once considered the sacrifices he’d have to make to protect the child. He’d never thought to weigh the costs inflicted upon his own life, which he now realized had tolled many. What’s more, he came to the conclusion that he simply didn’t care.
“And that…”Luciano spoke, gleaning the ambling of thoughts from the boy’s mind “is the reason why I trust you enough to let you into my keep, despite your unsavory alliances.”
Luciano peered a distance down the road, shielding the sun from his eyes with a hand, then looked again in the opposite direction.
“I haven’t seen anyone coming or going in miles. I think it’s safe to have a legerete walk if you’d like.” He judged. “It’d get you to your girl faster.” He tempted with a wide, almost salacious grin. “Humans might be inattentive, but a man suddenly vanishing away in broad daylight takes a great amount of effort to ignore.”
When at last they did reach the vigneto, the sky was already awash with the rose of declining day. Together they strode through the field where Scarafaggio had seen visions of Guendalina idling alone. She was nowhere to be seen. His mind vomited forth every incarnation of her demise he’d been offered in his dreams, and he ran, calling out her name to the echoing distance.
Only the caw of an old black crow came back in reply. The mangy thing swooped down upon him, dropping a colorful tidbit from it’s beak and into his hands before it made it’s perch upon Luciano’s shoulder.
The sight stirred a smile upon Scarafaggio’s face as he remembered the last name the soldier had chosen for himself. “Spauracchio, scarecrow.” He murmered. “Not much of one from the look of it.”
“Hello Dolce.” Luciano greeted the bird as he might an old friend or lover. “I’d hoped you might join us!”
It was a curious thing to behold, but it almost seemed that he understood the things cackles and crows as a language.
“What’s that she gave you there?” Luciano asked, motioning to Scarafaggio’s balled fist. He hadn’t even the presence of mind to examine the crow’s gift.
“Probably a seed of some sort…” He began, but was quickly silenced as he looked into his palm. There he held one of the wildflowers he and Guendalina had devoted so much of their time to gathering in the past.
“Look there.” Luciano said, pointing to a sandy mound a few yards away. Scarafaggio looked to see that it’s surface had been adorned with bits of seashell, beach-glass and a handful more of these same flowers. The leavings came together as a mosaic, forming an arrow that pointed back towards the main vineyard.
“Your Guendalina wants you to find her, don’t you think so Dolce?” Luciano asked of the crow, who cheerfully rode his shoulder. The creature bobbed it’s head up and down, in a gesture that perfectly mimicked a nod.
“Go on ahead.” Luciano allowed. “I’ve some things I need to discuss with Franco myself. We’ll meet up with you later on.” The crow confirmed his words with that same bobbing gesture. All the while, the bird stared at Scarafaggio in a way that gouged into the heart of his very consciousness, unwinding the fibers of his being with one beady lemon eye. He was glad to be free of the gawking beast.
He found several more of Guendalina’s arrows, following each in turn. She’d been busy in his absence, but he was elated to see that never once had she doubted he would return to her.
He chased the arrows through cellars, and up staircases that opened onto balconies. There the whole of the ocean stretched out before his eyes. The sea, transformed for all the world into a livid slab of lapis lazuli, jutting out towards the horizon to greet the cloud swathed heavens.
The arrows ushered him through the old servant’s passages, and into lavishly appointed guest bedrooms he doubted anyone but the maids knew existed, and Guendalina of course. He flumped himself down upon the downy embrace of their long abandoned mattresses, delighting in the clouds of dust that danced minuets about his head. He gazed up into their canopies, and imagined what it might be like to fall asleep beneath this latticework of wood and silk.
One of these arrows, however, lead him through a room that was very much inhabited. He was startled to see the thing lying beneath the covers. This room seemed the grandest of all, and yet the creature housed within was a swollen, malformed atrocity.
He peered into what he presumed to be it’s eyes, which glinted like black beads lodged in some amorphous, tumescent clod of festering flesh. Here lay a squirming pile of offal, discarded by the slaughterhouse and poured between these bed sheets. It wasn’t until he heard the mound’s groaning voice escape what he presumed to be it’s lips that he realized this was the Noblidonna.
“Water, water…please bring me some water!” She cried out pitifully, reaching towards a glass and pitcher set upon her nightstand, just out of reach.
Without thinking, Scarafaggio poured some water into a glass and eased it to the woman’s mouth.
“I can’t see.” She moaned between lapping slurps through the engorged protuberance that had been her lips. “Whose there?”
“My name is… Zuppo.” He lied, shaking his head at the unlikeliness of her having a servant named so.
“Zuppo.” She repeated the name to herself, “thank you.”
“I’m new to the household.” He elaborated.
“No you aren’t.” The woman squawked. “I don’t care where you came from, so long as you’re here now. I’ve been trapped in this room, alone all day.”
It was perhaps the most terrible fate Scarafaggio could imagine. To be shackled in your own skin, as she was, and abandoned by all around you. She had her happy whip to thank for that. Perhaps she deserved so contemptible an existence, still he could not help but pity her.
“They say you fell on a bee hive.” He whispered. “Is that what happened?”
“You’ve been talking to my husband I see.” She barely creaked the words out through her throat. “I didn’t fall, I was thrown!”
“Thrown?” Scarafaggio echoed.
“Yes, yes, oh please believe me!!! You must understand me when I say this, my husband keeps witches in his employ.”
“Witches!?” Scarafaggio parroted her words again, finding it was all the reply he could manage. He knew that witch was a word sometimes used for the Fatine. Humans had exacted all breeds of punishment upon his kin who had been to bold in revealing themselves. These torments had been justified by that one word “witch.”
“Giuro su Dio!” She rasped. “They can do as they like to you without ever dirtying their hands.”
“What good would witches be to a vigneto?” He implored.
“Ohhh, I must be dying!” She wailed suddenly. “You must be the priest here to give me my last rights!” She writhed back and forth beneath the sheets, her spine struggling against the burden of her engorged form.
“Why would you say that?” Scarafaggio flustered, placing what he hoped was a comforting hand upon her brow. His fingers sank into the tumid skin.
“You must be! You must have been locked away in a monastery somewhere no to know!” A white froth collected at the corners of her swollen lips.
“Know what?” Scarafaggio plead for an answer. “Tell me!?”
“Harvests have failed, everywhere failed!” She yowled. “People are rioting in the streets because they have no food, and yet we’ve had our finest harvest ever!”
“Well that’s good isn’t it?” Scarafaggio spoke lucidly.
“NO!” She hissed. “It’s the witches’ doing. That little girl and her so a called father!” She spat, as though her own venom had suddenly become to vile to bear the taste of. “They’ve given us our harvest and now they’ll do as they like!” She clutched desperately at Scarafaggio’s waistcoat, pulling him towards her, and wept upon his chest.
Scarafaggio reeled at the salt tears flooding from her eyes, pulling away from them lest they seer his skin. Could this have been the same woman who had shown such animosity before? The cruel harpy had fallen from the sky. Now, here she lay, he wings torn free, talons shorn, little more than a pile of carrion to be scavenged upon. She had earned this fate he reminded himself. Why then could he not battle against the remorse he felt for the wounded shrew?
“I’m ready Father Zuppo.” She choked the words free through the lumbering meat of her ruined face. “I’m ready to be absolved of my sins.”
“I can’t do that.” Scarafaggio admit weakly. “I don’t really think anyone can.”
“You must, you must!” She bawled in anguish.
“If I could,” he answered “I’d have done it for myself years ago.”
He had left the woman, howling in her bed. He’d toyed with the idea of healing her, but to do so he’d have to reveal himself. It was one thing to hold a conversation with a woman whose eyes were near swollen shut, but quite another to forcibly tear away the veil that separated man’s world from that of …whatever dominion he belonged to now, he didn’t know. Time would restore her body, and unfortunately, he was quite certain it would bolster her wrath.
In trying to defend Guendalina, he’d succeeded only in transforming her to a witch in the Noblidonna’s mind. Mammina had told him stories, Fatine fables warning of how humans had burned both his kind and their own under such accusations. They had gleefully turned the bodies of the accused to kindling while life still flushed through their veins. He thought back to his nightmares. Guendalina had crumbled to embers at his touch. Was it all to come true?
He found himself in no mood to chase pretty arrows now. Instead he wandered aimlessly through the grounds without their escort.
“Did you see her?!?!” He heard a familiar voice chirp.
He turned to see Guendalina, following him along a trail of stepping-stones sown throughout one of the vigneto’s many gardens. She grinned up at him, never knowing how he had failed her, delighted just to see him.
He scooped the girl up into his arms, finding he couldn’t hold her close enough to him to be satisfied that she was safe. She squirmed, giggling as he laden her cheeks with kisses. Whatever the future held for them, the child was safe in this moment, and he still able to protect her.
“Let me down!” She laughed the words free and how they danced in Scarafaggio’s ears. “I want to see your pretty clothes!”
Her protector relented, setting her upon the ground where she wound circles about him, assessing his attire.
“You look like the people in books do.” She finally determined, beaming up at him with what he took to be her approval.
“Well, thank you.” He offered with a gracious bow that succeeded in culling a laugh from the child.
“Why were you sad before?” Guendalina asked him, taking his hands in hers.
“Who said I was?” He replied, lowering himself upon one knee.
“You were.” She affirmed. “Is it because the Noblidonna is so ugly?” The laughter, which trailed behind these words, seemed almost spiteful.
“I just think it must be terrible to be hurt and all alone in a room like that. Just locked in there, trapped in your own mind.” He found himself falling into a verbal gallivant, which Guendalina brought to a halt.
“I don’t feel sorry for her!” She said definitively. “I wish she had died.”
He could feel the ugliness of the girl’s hatred, and in truth it was not unwarranted. He realized that the realm of human morality was still one he was unfamiliar treading within. He doubted he’d ever be able to negotiate this terrain. For the first time since he had decided to leave the tribù, he felt himself longing for the simplicity of his former life. There was a freedom in being stripped of the responsibility to control your own fate, the comfort of obedience. Yet his brothers had suffered despite this, no because of this. They died because they had been ill informed of their queens’ intentions, and punished as though they had wills of their own.
“You don’t wish she was dead.” Scarafaggio offered in opposition. Guendalina seemed mystified by the words.
“Death is nothing, it’s easy.” He explained. “No pain, no struggle, everything ends. Living with what you’ve done is much harder.” His hand reached errantly up to the vile he wore around his neck, fingers twirling the cursed thing and the reminder it held within.
“Oh, you have a new necklace!” The girl said in a gilded voice, as if she’d been deaf to his last words. She plucked up the pretty stone Arabella had given him and bounced it in her palm.
Seeing that her friends sorrow in no way lessened with the distraction, she conceded with a sigh. “You’re sad because you think it was your fault.” The child said astutely.
“Well it wasn’t.” She whispered through an impish grin. “It was me!”
“Don’t say that.” He protested. “You didn’t do anything to deserve what she did to you.”
“No!” She said, clapping her hands together with a near maniacal glee. “I set the bees upon her!”
“Stop it!” He chided. “That’s impossible, even if you wanted to…”
“I did!” She spoke through hissing laughter. “I felt it when the bees were stinging me.” She said, her voice taking on a terrifying sort of sobriety. “I could understand them, the same way I can understand you.” She said, tapping a finger to her temple. “I knew bees and Fatine were related.”
“We’re not!” He spoke harshly, half out of offense at being ranked among insects and half out of the fear of what this child was slowly revealing to him. Could she really delve into his mind? He’d have shrugged it all away as nonsense had he not experienced just that with Arabella. Was it possible that this girl, somehow had developed a similar dominion over the insect world, a reign over their minds?
“Bees don’t think!” He justified, as much to his doubting mind as to the girl.
“They do.” She insisted with a horrible starkness. “They were only defending themselves when they stung me.”
“And they were only defending themselves when the Noblidonna fell on their hive.” He insisted.
“When you threw her on their hive.” She corrected him, unwilling to spare him blame in the deed.
“Yes.” He reluctantly admitted. “When I threw her.”
“You wanted to kill her then, but you didn’t.” She said with cold serene. It was nothing less than the truth gleaned from his own mind. Why then was it so difficult for him to face it?
“So you ordered the bees to do it instead?” Scarafaggio said, still disbelieving the child’s words, more out of comfort to himself than anything else.
“Yes.” She confirmed. “But there weren’t enough of them to do it. Bees die after they use their sting. They’re only good for one.”
Her last words chilled them. It seemed very much like an initiative that might have come down from his queens. What matter was it that lives were lost if it was for the good of the tribù… or for vendetta? He would not let Guendalina dither into that kind of abandon. Not while he was her guardian.
“How do you know the bees wouldn’t have done that anyway?” He offered in retort.
She looked at him, puzzled for a moment. “Do you still love me Scarafaggio?”
Love was not a concept he fully understood, not in the terms humans experienced it, and the words fell strange upon his ears. He took from her meaning that she sought confirmation things would remain as they had been. Would he still offer himself to her as her friend and protector, in spite of the things she had revealed to him? As if he himself were guiltless.
“Yes.” He said with a certainty that tethered all that he was or would ever be.
“Good.” She said, though the broad smile on her face revealed she had never really doubted it. “Because I have something to show you.”
He followed her skipping footsteps to a corner of the garden where a squirrel lay dead. It appeared the carcass had been there several days at least. It’s eye sockets were barren, two gaping holes draped in curtains of scurrying ants. Flies had laid claim to the sweet rot of flesh that still clung to its bones, buzzing merrily here and there as they reaped their fruitage.
“Why would you want to show me a thing like that?” Scarafaggio demanded, more disappointed than disgusted with the thing. He’d seen dead animals before, and they held no interest for him. It paled in comparison to splendors he’d seen when lead by the arrows.
“Watch.” She said, grinning. “I’ve been practicing.”
With that, the girl held a hand above her head. The flies hovering about the carcass stopped suddenly. They were stilled in time for the briefest of instants; the eternal beat of their wings ceasing. Then having seemingly lost interest in their banquet of decay, they flew upwards to Guendalina’s hand. Scarafaggio watched a cluster of flies slowly became a pulsing black orb, mounting the child’s wrist.
Flies from all corners of the garden zipped through the air. Scarafaggio dodged scores of their tiny bodies as they hurdled themselves through the air, eager to unite with their brethren. The brood soon climbed to the girl’s elbow, till finally she relented. Only then did the insects scatter back to their former business, whatever that might be.
Scarafaggio could only stare vacantly at the child. He remembered what Luciano had said about the Rile, how they possessed unique abilities like those of the Fatine. He knew Guendalina was one of them, but not until today had he been faced with the curiosity that came with her distinction.
“I knew it!” She wept. “I never should have shown you! You’re afraid of me now!” She turned to run from him, but he snatched her up into his arms and held her tight. He wanted to keep her safe in his embrace forever, where no one could ever hurt her again.
“I’m not afraid of you.” He assured her.
In truth he was not, rather he was afraid of what might become of her. It was challenge enough to be groomed as guardian over a precocious, perilously curious tot, one who corralled bugs in stolen crystal vases and bowls. Now the burden of her unusual gift had been cheerfully thrust into the mix. A child, too young to hide her tears and pout was now given quarter over the insect world. What would her tantrums be like? Would plagues of locusts protest her bedtime, while armies of biting ants assured she always got her way? In a world rife with superstition, what would be made of such a little girl? A witch? She’d be lucky to receive so mild a branding.
What she had done to the Noblidonna was cruel, but such are the whims of children. How could he let alone the aging fiddler hope to teach composure to a child whom even nature bowed to?
He wondered if these were the same worries that Mammina had stowed within itself. It was free of them now. There must have been some element of solace in having those responsibilities forever washed away.