The Magician & The Fiddler

Image Copyright: Krista Bonello Rutter Giappone

Marvin the Marvel takes Browning’s advice, ‘a man’s reach should exceed his grasp’, a little too literally. Alas, all his vaulting ambitions are matched by a capability only adequate to plunging off the end-of-the-pier – where he belongs – into the murky depths below. Stick to children’s parties and seaside resorts, is my advice to him.

Harry reread the review, over his morning cup of Earl Grey tea. He mouthed the words to himself, lingering over their shapes, framed by a pleasant, mild tea-taste. The grapefruit juice that chased it down was bitter. He felt the tiniest pang of guilt; but decided that he loved his job after all.

‘Were we too harsh?’ asked Monica, folding her newspaper and setting it beside her.

Harry shrugged.

‘I mean, it was terrible, there’s no denying that,’ Monica rationalised.

‘It’s our duty to keep our readers informed – and forewarned,’ Harry said cheerfully. He stood up and stretched, turning towards the window. ‘It’s a lovely day outside.’

Harry had no reservations about writing bad reviews; indeed, claims of moral duty aside, Monica suspected he enjoyed them rather more than was strictly necessary. Monica’s qualms, on the other hand, may have had something to do with her own insecurities as a fiddler. She had never attempted public performance – she suffered from a mortal terror of critics. Instead, she played an accompaniment to the crickets living in the hedgerow behind the house. She found this made for a more comforting arrangement of sounds.

Harry and Monica were theatre critics for different newspapers. Which meant they often got sent to watch and review the same shows. Last night’s had been a random addition – the RSC had cancelled their production of The Spanish Tragedy, and they’d decided to review a much-hyped magic show instead. Years of experience as the panto dame at the local corn exchange comprised the extent of Harry’s knowledge – quite a reasonable qualification, he thought.

Marvin the Marvel, magician and author of such esoteric volumes as Dangerous Fabrics, Voodoo for Beginners, The Multiple Uses of Cats, and one detective novel – Long-Distance Murder, had just launched his first solo show. It was cheap and tacky entertainment fare. It might have gone down quite well at Butlins, thought Monica – but Marvin was well out of his depth with last night’s audience, and he didn’t know the first thing about dealing with hecklers – the show started its slow grind towards an agonisingly awkward drawn-out halt as soon as the little girl in the audience yelled out, ‘I can see the string!’ Marvin had ended the show on an – admittedly spectacular – finale, going up in smoke. Everyone had cheered; no one harder than Harry. Monica had held her breath too long, and had simply been grateful for the opportunity to release her pent-up laughter.

With no work till tomorrow night – press night for another re-visioning of Beckett’s Endgame – Monica decided to devote her time to practising on the fiddle, and Harry idly contemplated doing some work in the garden. He wanted to see how the strawberries were coming along.

The phone call was a little out of the blue, but Harry and Monica had learned to expect the inconveniences that came with being a critic – the angry letters bristling with hurt pride, the deadly shards of glass, the occasional death-threat.

Monica answered.

‘Hello, it’s Marvin the Marvel here.’

Monica could barely contain herself. ‘Oh, hello Mr Marvel.’ She couldn’t manage any more than that; the urge to giggle was rising like an irrepressible tide.

‘I read the reviews.’ Silence.

‘Oh, that’s – good.’ She drew in deep breaths and steadied her quavering voice.

‘You will regret this.’

Marvin spoke in intensely dramatic tones, every word seemingly calculated to conjure up a spell. This was too much for Monica. Peals of laughter tore away at her reserve. ‘I’m sorry…’

‘You will be.’ The line went dead.

‘Guess who that was.’ She told Harry. The shared laughter over the affair raised their spirits, and cast its happy glow over the rest of the day.

That evening, they had a couple of glasses of red, and a lively discussion on hubris in Julius Caesar.

Monica crawled out of bed at 11am to answer the doorbell, the next morning. She signed for delivery, and waited for the parcel to be unloaded. ‘It’s the whole truckload, miss. Would you like any help?’ She shook her head.

She circled the truck in bemused wonderment. What could it be? Stage props? Scenery? Their own independent production of her play, Where has all the marmalade gone? (a cross between cutting social satire and Winnie the Pooh) wasn’t due to enter the rehearsal-process till September.

Did Harry mean to surprise her?

‘I have no idea where it came from. Have you tried looking inside?’ Harry eyed it quizzically.

‘No. I wanted to wait for you.’

‘Well then, let’s see, shall we?’

Monica threw open the door. Inside were rows upon rows of shelves, stacked to the heights with books. Mostly lurid paperback novels, tattered vintage comics – books with screaming titles that marched across the spines – and occasionally dripped blood-red ink – pursued by a series of exclamation marks.

There was one particular row of horror paperbacks – more lurid affairs, like bound volumes of lost Victorian penny-dreadfuls. An entire series of volumes, each dedicated to a monster; there was one on ‘Werewolves’, one on ‘The Undead’, another on ‘Frankenstein’s monster’… yet another on ‘Mummies’.

Monica’s eye caught something on a higher shelf, leaning with its back to the wall, frontcover facing out. As her gaze tried to focus, she read disappearing snatches… something about the Transformations of Fredric Marsh… Richard Mansfield… The cover-picture was a garish drawing of Mansfield clutching a beaker, face twisting itself into impossible shapelessness.

She climbed up the shelves towards it, Harry’s entreaties to ‘be careful’ vague muffled echoes on the edge of hearing. A nasty laugh cut through the dreamhaze. Though she knew it was there, the book vanished as soon as she reached out for it. Her grasp scooped air and insubstantial colours, that broke their containment and spread outwards in ripples as her fingertips dipped into the cover-that-was-no-longer-there. She groped around in the place where she was sure it had been, knowing that it was still there – merely inaccessible to her senses.

In the meantime, the monster-books on the lower shelf were splitting their bindings, and expelling their contents. Mummies stumbled forth, blindly staggering past. Bats burst forth with an explosive flurry. Gnashing wolves tumbled out, flattening Harry under padded feet. The walls of books imploded towards them, in monster-shaped fragments. Monica, thrown off balance by a giant taloned flying creature, fell to the ground. She clutched Harry’s arm, speechless, as a stream of skeletons rattled past.

Marvin the Marvel was standing on the doorstep, ushering his fiendish forces into the house. Monica and Harry ran back in, after his retreating back. The living-room was overrun with the creatures of nightmare – ravens cackled with glee as they dropped the tea-things onto unwitting zombies; werewolves mocked Lily the wire-haired terrier; and Marvin stirred sugar into his tea.

Alarmed at the manner in which they had been ousted from their own living-room, Harry confronted Marvin. ‘What… Just. What?’

Marvin nodded to two ratchety skeletons, who chased the couple through their house, and out the back door.

‘Oh, sorry about all the dirt on your welcome mat…’ Marvin threw back his head and laughed. Harry was about to say something about the whole maniacal performance being rather tastelessly overstated, but thought better of it, as the two sentry-skeletons sat down to guard the entrance. Earth fell from their joints as they marshalled their bones into a cross-legged position.

The crickets were out in full orchestral harmony that night. Monica picked up her fiddle and played, under the light of the moon. The howls of wolves picked up the refrain.

Krista Bonello Rutter Giappone

Advertisements

Black Night – They step into Darkness

Read the prelude…

Nar: They walked through the empty streets talking of unimportant things. Now and then one of them would laugh or shout with happiness. They pointed at all the strange sights of the dark city. The city was calling to them.

-Come to me…

Its language was as old as stone and dirt. They heard it in their souls. They were drawn to the darkness and mystery. Soon they were tired and could walk no further. They stood in front of a tall building. It loomed. The sign above the door read

The Last Waterhole

Continue reading

Il Miracolo della Reliquia della Santa Croce

Image by Noel Tanti

 

Over a wooden bridge across the green waterway comes a procession of robed men, shimmering white under the summer sun. Solemnly, they bear large candles, while a few swing smoking censers to an inaudible rhythm, cleaving a path through the throngs that kneel and weep before their leader, the Patriarch. He is a pious looking man with an aquiline nose, who smiles benevolently upon the crowds and stretches out his hand, holding it momentarily over the heads of the faithful, his flock.  

The procession stops before a number of large marble archways, under which an agitated crowd ebbs and flows restlessly, waiting. In their midst is a single man lying prostrate on the ground, his body shaking, as if under the force of some terrible malevolence. He has lain like this for over an hour, and his torments as yet show no sign of relenting. The man is well-known throughout the city, a grotesque madman who threatens to evacuate his bowels in the middle of the street, and masturbates freely before the horrified sight of passing noble ladies. He has, however, seemed altered lately, beginning to wither before the eyes of the residents of the city, his body perishing under the forgetfulness of its owner. He has taken instead to staring for hour upon hour into the sun, and singing in a strange, lilting high-pitched voice of divine beings with angel wings, seated upon thrones in gilded clouds.

It seems at last that he has been lost to his body entirely, as he writhes and wriggles upon the cold marble paving. The Patriarch’s tall, solid shadow moves suddenly across the emaciated form, and he draws from a silken purse inside his robe a small box which he opens, closing his eyes in prayer. At last he kneels down before the man, and places the box in his hand, saying the words “this is a piece of the cross upon which your saviour died for you. This is real.” The madman’s fingers close upon the box, feeling its cold materiality, and the madness suddenly disappears from his eyes. They say it is a miracle.

Images

Image: Daniel Vella

Anyone who knew her, even peripherally, knew her as the girl with the camera around her neck (or, if we want to be precise, cameras, for their were several she alternated between, as one might choose this or that pair of shoes based on the requirements of the particular day).

There had not been many significant others in Anna’s life, a fact which she attributed to a general sense of insufficiency she perceived in herself, but which others, more charitably, believed to be the result of a demeanour too reserved and introverted to allow for easy introductions or carefree flirtations. There had, however, been a few: though it might have seemed like it to those few friends who shared an insight, however limited, into her somewhat uneventful personal life, Dee was not her first romantic interest.

And so, it was with trepidation born of previous experiences that one day, just past the point where it had become obvious that this was not a passing fling, Anna told Dee: “There is something I must show you”, whispered conspiratorially, so that the listener has the impression of being let in on some great secret, of being offered a self-revelation that was not given lightly.

What the secret was, what the revelation entailed, was her collection of photographs: she had lost count somewhere in the range of five digits, but, at any rate, the collection spanned two hundred and seventy-two thick albums, occupying a room in her small apartment reserved for no other purpose. Every day was documented, every place she had visited, every sight that had caught her eye, every person she had met. It was a life in pictures, and it was, make no mistake, the work of a life.

Her aforementioned trepidation stemmed from the manner in which this scene had played out, in its previous iterations. This collection, this image-montage of moments and scenes, was such a crucial part of her she could not, in good faith, keep it hidden from anyone she wished to be close to. And yet, in her previous relationships as being, at best, a let-down – a bitter sense of disappointment at the realisation that the other saw the collection as a fascinating curio, perhaps, but could not glimpse its vital importance, the structure it imparted her life, the meaning she had imparted to each captured moment. She had seen interest, she had seen bemusement, incomprehension, boredom.

This was the first time, however, that she had seen wonder. Dee flicked through page after page, absorbing each image, submitting to the stream-of-consciousness inevitability with which one succeeded the other.

Finally: “This is…I have no words for this.”

And then: “I want to be in this. I want to be a part of this.”

Anna smiled.

I Ain’t Afraid of No Black Bird Part XV: La Belle Compagnie

Image: Daniel Vella

Click here for more tales of Dr. Millie and her undead raven:

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Part V (1)

Part V (continued 2)

Part V (continued 3)

Part VI

Part VII

Part VIII

Part IX

Part X

Part XI

Part XII

Part XIII

Part XIV

 

In which our heroine, trapped taut between social butterflies and a darker stalker, finally begins to gather up her own plot like so much scattered twine…

 

Gunthar, it turned out, was quite the delightful dancer – which made the sight of a repeatedly twirled Millie all the more pitiful. The satin buckle on his shiny patent shoe, pointed forward with as much grace as his rotundity could allow, became the point at which she registered the completion of each twirl. With every flash of mustard satin on black leather our heroine felt a certain sickness in her head and her stomach grow stronger. But it was not that alone: in the back of her mind, there was also, somewhere amidst the hurried rotation of the gathered crowd, a thing which she couldn’t quite dismiss, something which kept occurring to her for a second and disappearing once more.

Meanwhile, Imago held fast to the fabric on Millie’s shoulder with the occasional beating and flapping of wings, a brief but sharp caw and one large and rather annoyed eye. A circle slowly opened up around the twirling set and most of the female population in the room held their painted and feathery fans up like shields against the unwanted beast. Sensing the eyes of the room upon him, Gunthar suddenly pulled his unwilling partner’s chest toward his own and inflicted upon her still-shaking gaze a smile full of front teeth and self-conscious dimples. Millie was truly aghast. And his grinning head, now tilted in the manner of a sentimental lover on a stage, was almost too much for her to bear without a dizzy tear or a swoon.

By this time, so much fluttering and so many light-headed waves of music swirled around Millie’s ears, so much colour and satin, and too many voices to distinguish from one great clamor, that she barely registered Imago’s flustered tumbling and falling along the length of her dress and into the sea of legs and feet below them. A clumsy black mass, he batted his way through the choreographed steps, which he quickly interrupted and reduced to intervals of tripping, slipping and trampling amongst the flowering patterns of dancers.

In the midst of the confusion, his Millie’s swirling vision could only make out a vague, dark blur getting further away, but it seemed like nothing more than a speck in one’s eye – and as Imago receded, her uncanny feeling only grew stronger, as though the loss of one presence only gave way to the closing in of another. Millie began to feel the added and distinct unease of being watched, of an eye upon her which wasn’t her raven’s at all, but that was somehow strangely connected to the familiarity of that gaze. Though she began to evade Gunthar’s eyes with increasing dexterity, she could tell that it wasn’t this immediate annoyance which caused her such anxiety. It appeared, moreover, that the dance was now slowing down, and that her step and head might soon be allowed to regain their proper footing.

With a rush of sense flowing back to her, she was quite sure that Imago’s claw was no longer upon her shoulder in his usual way, and that she had seen his feathers a-flutter above the swarm of people, but with regard to the latter she could not take oath. Fortunately, and at long last for our poor heroine, it was time for the music to give way to another bout of chitter-chatter – and at that very moment, even the generally noxious prospect of small talk and gossip was enough to bring Millie some relief. The twirling was brought to a halt and Gunthar kissed her hand in a gesture which told her to wait while he brought them both some refreshments.

As he slipped away into the mass, she felt her heart lighten its load, and her sinews, which had so tightened by the constant effort of rejecting an unwanted attachment, had finally begun to succumb to a bodily ease. She closed her eyes with a feeling of deep sleepiness approaching, but no sooner had she opened them again than a new and flushed alertness washed over her entire body. She stood alone inside a little circular space within the crowded room. Yes Gunthar had gone, but so had her dear Imago. Where had she let him go? She was alone…

 

To be continued…

Divorcing Realities

He descends from the aircraft and touches the island’s ground rather for the first time, following an uneventful flight from Rome’s Fiumucino. In his breast pocket, a folded up photo of a young, red haired woman. He feels for it, ensuring himself it’s there.

She’s gone, he tells himself, and I have to find her.

That’s when it hits him. A migranial crescendo accompanies the swelling of acidity in his stomach. Nearly collapsing, he stumbles to the runway bus, while fellow passengers babble concern at his general direction.

“I’ll be alright, just… give me a few minutes, let me have a seat, please…”

It gets better in the automobile, but following the short ride to the airport itself he finds himself running to the nearest bathroom before vomiting his guts out.

***

“You’re looking pale,” his contact remarks, taking his meagre luggage amongst feeble mutterings of protest. That’s when he notices the collar and the tiny silver crucifix on his pale blue shirt’s pocket.

“I thought you were an enforcer, not… a priest, Father Salvador…”
The man of the cloth smiles weakly, fingering his collar in embarassment. “I’m one and both, really… the church handles Malta’s abordinary matters, thanks to 93’s concordat with the Vatican. Feeling better now, Mr. Hopkins?”
“Yes, thanks… it’s Samuel, by the way.”

They make their way to a small, dark grey Daihatsu.

“Hits you hard, doesn’t it?” the priest remarks while starting the vehicle.
“It’s… too much, nearly,” Samuel says. “All the energies, and histories. Now I know why the place’s avoided by anyone of a sensitive bent.”
“And that’s how the authorities prefer it, really. I’m surprised you were even issued a visa in the first place.”
“I’m only a sensitive, and one that can save your, ahem, authorities a fair bit of trouble.”
“Yes, your… investigation. Well, that’s why I’m here, think I know just the place to start.”

***

Every major city has its hidden organisations, and Samuel knows most of them. From Londonmances to Parisian catacultists, alchemists in Prague, troll hunters in Helsinki and weirdists in Lódz. New York’s abordinary community hides in plain sight, while San Francisco’s nestles in Chinatown.

“The Fratelli di Romolo send their regards,” Samuel mutters as the car winds through the traffic.
The priest barks in hoarse laugh. “They told how they tried to establish a chapter in Malta, back in the 1800’s? The British took care of that pretty quickly.”

The cloudy sky takes a yellowish tint as they drive on, passing a billboard bearing lurid pink letters exorting for divorce.

***

The priest stops the car in front of what looks like a house converted into a tavern.

“Here…?”
“Here. Welcome to the Minotaur, so called because it squats in the middle of a labyrinth.”

The place is dark, lit only with a sporadic combination of lurid blue and red candles. The walls carry gewgaws and fetishes and sickly wallpaper. A hard faced man at the bar grunts at the priest in recognition. At one corner sits a bearded figure, wrapped in a heavy coat and scarf, gesturing with an unlit pipe held in a gloved hand while chatting animatedly with a scruffy youth in a tshirt and jeans; elsewhere a girl with dreaded blonde hair shuffles a tarot deck while a scrawny pigeon looks on with a single bloodshot eye. The priest points at a pair of armchairs.

“Want a drink? I’ll get you a drink. Have a seat.”

Samuel sits down, warily, before Salvador comes back with a pair of dark amber bottles. He takes one bottle and eyes it suspiciously.

“What’s this business with the divorce billboards?”
“Oh that… well some parts are suggesting Malta should divorce its reality from the rest of the world’s… powering up the Mosta High Energy dome in order to carve a nice little Malta only zone, away from current worldly troubles. So the authorities decide to hold a referendum. Nice and easy, and no politico gets hurt.”

Samuel continues staring at the bottle, before finally deciding to give the drink a go.

“I admire your being suspicious, but I assure you that beer’s the best thing you’ll taste all day,” booms a voice just before Samuel’s lips touch the bottle.

The beer tastes of honey, of the sea, of sun drenched days and melancholy winter rains.

“The beer’s the best damn thing they make on the island, the wine they make these days is not worth piss, and the less said on the ‘traditional’ liquers, the better,” the voice continues.

The voice comes from a woman – or is it a man? – of immense proportions, standing over 7 feet tall. Everything about the figure is huge and fleshy, pendulous breasts over stretched out stomach, carried by stout legs, yet she moves as sensuously and softly as a cat.

“Leave us be, godsbotherer,” she commands, voice suddenly sounding male and commanding. The figure is now clearly male, a colossal and muscular giant. “Join me, visitor.”

He gets up, taking his beer with him. Noone else notices anything out of the ordinary.

***

They head outside, where the skies are violently yellow.

“Why meet here, of all places?”
“The megaliths are a playground for fools and tourists, while Valletta is a shrinking, rotten carcass and a ruin. And I avoid churches. This pub is as much of a valid locus as any other, if not more so.”
“Fair enough. You know what I’m here for?”
“You can’t stop the apocalypse, not really. But I’ll help you anyway. To find her. If you help me.”
“You want the island divorced from reality as well?”

The giant figure’s face (male or female?) screws up in disgust. “Please. Like isolationism ever helped anyone. Too bad the old potter around in their old capital towers, while the young drink and fuck and play their games, prefering to remain in their stupor. They don’t know who I am, can’t even see me.”
Allawommu. Godsmothers, god and mother. Fathermother.”

A barn owl swoops down towards the two, without sound or warning. It lands on the giant’s oversized shoulder and chirps urgently in its ear.

“Would you believe that? Europe’s oldest familiar lineage and it gets hunted down for sport. I’ll ask the bones and stones on your red haired lovely’s whereabouts. You keep my words in mind.”

And with those words, she was gone. In his hands, he realises his bottle was somehow refilled.

Only Light

Photo by Aldo Cauchi Savona

There are no shows here, he said. There is only light, sound and magic.

He was fifty-two then, when the local rags seized the delicious sound bite. What Caliban and the Travelling Circus of Valletta had attempted to do was unprecedented; nobody could deny that much. A proper variety show, lasting beyond two, three weekends and into the entire year. Nobody here had the funds, or the audiences for that.

Valletta is in ruins, he continued, and we will make her weep at the memory of her greatness.

After the trainee journalist left the backstage, the troupe began a run through without Caliban – their portly leader decided his trip to the grocery store couldn’t wait.

Peaches, he said. My wife loves peaches and we’re all out.

They knew about her love of peaches – it was the only insight into his private life that they got – it was everything else they were blind to. The clothes he just layered and layered on himself (even as the merciless Mediterranean summer encroached on the humid isle), the leather jacket he draped over it all, the sunglasses he wore even indoors and the hat – a ridiculous cowboy hat – finished off with the equally preposterous, inexplicable moniker.

The run was perfect. It was a shame Caliban wasn’t there to see it. When he returned to the black box theatre, he was clutching a bag on peaches in one hand. He stared at the troupe for a few moments; their faces – varied as they were – all wore the same mixture of satisfaction and relief.

He went backstage without saying a word. Later, some of the troupe would whisper that they saw tears in his eyes.

***

“Caliban is not so much a mystery, as a caricature with no context,” Cynthia said once, over drinks at The Crushed Petal, a pretentious bar the troupe attended because they couldn’t be bothered to walk to anywhere better after rehearsals, and performances too.

They all agreed with Cynthia’s assessment, and they agreed too that Caliban should never, ever hear what was said between them. It wasn’t that they were scared – they were co-opted into the doomed project largely in a spirit of defiance – but they could all intuitively sense that the baffling edifice that made up their director would shatter at the first sign of criticism from his troupe. He didn’t call them ‘children’, but Cynthia sometimes dreamt he did.

Cynthia was the most beautiful girl of the troupe. She wasn’t tall but in everything else she was flawless: her skin was porcelain-smooth, her hair was a delicious strawberry blonde and her hips met that perfect Mediterranean meridian of sizable and elegant. She was the troupe’s bearded lady, and she wrote her own jokes.

“Cali directs the show with all the pomposity of a ballet guy, but with none of the discipline, or substance.”

Despite this, she loved him, as they all did.

***

He did cry that day. His wife had died. The peaches remained backstage for two whole weeks, even after the show ground to an inelegant halt. The final performance welcomed six audience members, four of which were comps. Cynthia had cousins flying over from Brussels, and begged them to come even though begging was not her strong suit.

They met, two weeks later, but not at The Crushed Petal. Valletta was still in ruins, and they had no reason to navigate through them now.

“That journalist sent me a nice email,” Cynthia said. She had broken into a giggle; they were already tipsy from cheap wine. “Did you see the headline? Sound and magic, and all capitalised! I swear this country is shit from top to bottom…”

They wished Caliban were with them. But when they thought about him celebrating anything, they paused their thoughts, and reconsidered.