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.

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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.

Fairy Tale Week!

Art by Noel Tanti

First, we gave you erotica and now… Schlock continues to celebrate spring with a series of tales culled from our contributors’ deepest childhood memories. Some are nostalgic, some explore the darker underbelly within… one is even multi-lingual!

We all love a fairy tale, so why not dip into our offerings below? Between tales of shady woodland happenings, snaky births, mysteriously monickered girls and strange abductions, you’re sure to find something that piques your fancy.

Faerie Schlinks by Noel Tanti

In The Heart of the Woods and What I Found There by Daniel Vella

The Hands Can Only Do So Much by Teodor Reljic

The Girl Next Door by Michael Vella

La Pastorella; Ir-Raghajessa; The Shepherdess by Lara Schembri

the Story of Glass by Peter Farrugia

The Bronze Maiden by Bettina Borg Cardona

The Bronze Maiden

Image by Author

 There once was a maiden of greening bronze, who stood atop a beautiful fountain in the gardens of the Sun King’s palace. The king’s son, the young and handsome prince, who was often lonely in the large halls of the shining palace, liked to walk out into the gardens, and admire the many beautiful flowers that blossomed all year long. His favourite place was however the pretty little fountain, where he sat for hours watching the water splish-splash and sparkle, admiring the maiden’s Grecian locks and the creases in her flowing silken robes. He soon began to spend more and more time there, until he hardly wanted to leave at all, and it sometimes seemed to him that the lovely maiden was smiling down upon him, and quite enjoyed his company.

The prince’s father, while a good and kind king, was not without enemies. One night, at the stroke of midnight, when the prince had long left his sunny haven and retired to bed, a slinking black figure with narrow silver eyes slithered down a deep, dark hole and whispered into the ear of the King of Night, whose kingdom was the belly of the world, of the prince’s new infatuation. Laughing cruelly, the dark king ordered that the statue be brought to him, so that the prince’s heart might be broken.

The next morning, when the prince awoke and went out as usual to the fountain, he found that the beautiful maiden had gone. As the days went by, he began to miss her terribly, and decided to tell his father all that had happened. The king ordered that his soldiers find the missing maiden immediately, and they set off to search high and low throughout the sunshine kingdom. It was only after some days that they learned where she had been taken, but not one dared enter the dangerous lands of their greatest enemy. When they told the king of her location, he took his son aside, and begged him to give the maiden up for lost, explaining to him that they did not belong in the realm of the underworld.

The prince, however, could not forget the maiden, and remained determined to find her. One night, he crept out, covering his shimmering visage with a black cloak, and made his way to a deep well far outside the palace, which he knew must lead into the dark king’s kingdom. He felt the darkness grow heavier and heavier upon him as he went deeper underground, but he only burned brighter with the love that was in his heart. Pushing on, he heard the sound of sobbing in the distance, and came eventually to a murky river that was black with slime, at the centre of which stood his lost maiden, tears streaming down her face as they drip-dripped into the dark waters below.

Overjoyed, the prince threw off his cloak, and it was suddenly like an eruption of light that singed the darkness of that underworld chamber. Wading through the water that seemed to part beneath his luminescent feet, he faced the maiden, embracing her lovingly in his arms. However, as he held her cold form close to his breast, something terrible began to happen, her face seeming to contort in strange agony. It was too late when he realised that she was melting in his arms, and could not withstand the brightness of his passion.

The prince was distraught as he watched the lovely shape slip away into the blackness beneath, and found suddenly that the dank and damp seemed to be closing in dangerously upon him. Unable to breathe, he turned and made his way back up the tunnel, clutching at the walls of stone that pressed oppressively about him. But it was too late even for him. The blackness engulfed him limb by limb, and it was like a candle flame caught suddenly in a draught, as the last of the prince’s light was finally extinguished.

The prince never returned again to the sunshine kingdom, where the king his father mourned him for the rest of his years, wondering forever, helpless, whether his son had remained trapped in that coldest of realms, too cold and dark for even the littlest of flames.

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.