Trigger Warning: Gore, Animal Death, Implied / Referenced Cannibalism
Outside, thunder rapped against the steel frame of the windows.
Emmanuel sat, and watched the rain streak tears against the flat panes. The colour was diluted. He stared into the eyes of the street lamps – liquid and luminous, lit like matches on gasoline in the night – and wondered if the choir still sang in the practice halls of the church. He remembered it vaguely, from the perspective of his own, long-passed childhood. The drape of robes was too large for him, drowning him in that ill-fitting skin. The reverb and keening of his own throat amalgamated into that melody of cracked schoolboy voices and oscillating tenors.
Brittle things turned divine.
The fireplace crackled, a warm hearth. It seared the tips of his fingertips. The dogs swarmed at his feet. They milled, ears dropping but alert eyes searching. They looked to him for guidance. He had nothing but the flesh of his own hands and the rag-tag heap of the only clothes he owned to mimic the funnelling of coal into a living furnace. He offered the only thing he could – himself. He stroked the matted coat of one of the abandoned mixed breeds. Another whined, a piteous sound, and rested a white-hot head on the crook of his shoulder. He murmured comforts, the stumbling words to a prayer he half-remembered the shape of.
He pressed his eyes shut, inhaling the mortar and dust that drifted.
And he dreamt.
The nature of dreams was such that it elucidated reality. It may have seemed like a contradiction. The many floating, wandering tendrils of thought deferring to the threat of lucidity and yet coming together to form a most wonderfully abstract painting of fragments and shards that fit together. The details lay in the imperfections – claw marks and scorch scars in the loose earth, gutting past the superficial.
He dreamed of a majestic stag. The warm breath of the beast lingered at the back of his neck. Its fur shone like trapped amber beneath his trembling fingers, streaked, red verging on black and vice versa, and in its glistening maw, he saw the needle-sharp point of a thousand clustered pine-like teeth. In its eyes, the copper-rusted brown of dried tacky blood – the contour of the void given form, until nothing could be seen save for the thin pinpricks of calcified whites within a glassy sea.
He watched it transform right before his eyes.
The hands of an unseen taxidermist crystallising it into a single, precise point in time. The life that drained out of those raging eyes, as trapped as the sea within a coronet of encircling rocks, bleeding liquid ruby as bitterly as the weeping streaks of rain. The stitches opened up, a map worked across its skin, a scarification of black threads and nail-sized holes across the underbelly and gullet. His hands were warm with blood. He saw in his reflection the grey steel of the butcher’s knife, and in the gaze of the blade-
He saw his own slaughtered carcass.
He wakes up, soaked in sweat, the stirrings of tears that are not his own setting his vision alight with fire.
Always not one for dreams. But still, nightmares drew near to him like moths to light.
The Lungarno Torrigiani was a stretch of the south bank of the Arno River that traversed from the Via de ‘Bardi to the Ponte alle Grazie. It offered an extraordinary view of the Uffizi, from where he stood.
He set the coffee down, his regular from the cafe across the street, and waited for the stains to dry up in the mid-morning sun. He sat, back pressed against the steps of the fountain. Marble peered from the distant vertices of certain buildings, some carved in the shape of animals, heads, and people – all silent, unbreathing formations as the world bustled around. The tourist buses cruised by. It was even easier to pick out the tourists. He angled his head away from any curious eyes, all too conscious of the ugly scar that stretched across from his eye to chin. It was a red, livid thing. Still healing, albeit too slow for his liking.
It was a young girl. Her voice was soft, unsure. She tickled a familiar memory from the back of his mind – he saw a flash of another – dark hair, blue but doe-eyed. The vision faded. Memory trickled back into its Pandora’s box, and this he buried deep beneath the earth before the anguish could come bubbling up, rendering him as inconsequential as smoke to the bones of the breeze.
“My friend said you were psychic.” She said.
He did not argue. He’d spent a lifetime fighting losing battles.
But he did take pity, unwilling to let the silence sink in too painfully.
“You’re on a vacation with your friends.” He offered after a beat, studying her face and her to him, each attempting to read each through the invisible veil of an etched map. “There’s something that’s been troubling you… a problem with a friend, no, something closer to home, something like- family.” He watched her eyes grow wide. “There’s a decision you’ve made. Your parents were not happy. They care for you. But they’re also afraid. That this path you have chosen is a condemnation, and if they let you down, it…they cannot guarantee your future later on. The greatest mistake in the mind of a parent.”
He saw the unspoken misery sunken in her eyes. The irrational guilt.
“You’re an… artist?” At her slow nod, he continued, “It consumes your soul, fills you with happiness. You’ve never known yourself as well as you do, doing the things you love so dearly. You’re good at it, too. And you know you can be even better, if you just have the chance to prove yourself. That’s the reason you chose this place. To just- stand here and soak in the air of this place. The place where art bled, into something tangible and breathtaking and beautiful.”
“How did you know?” She challenged.
“Secrets of the trade. A magician never reveals their secrets.” He winked. “Or a psychic.”
A small smile returned his.
Her eyes darted to his empty cup. She dropped a coin. “Thank you.”
“Look for Botticelli’s Primavera in the Uffizi.” He told her, tilting his head in the general direction, just as she turned to leave. “I have a feeling you might enjoy that one.”
Hours passed. His customers plucked themselves out of the crowd, drawn to him as though by some invisible string, and undone by their curiosity. Some, perhaps by pity. Others, he wondered if it was fear that drove them – fear that it was shallowness that betrayed their emotion, that if the self-imposed barriers between strangers were so thin that all it took was one sharp enough to bring the whole facade crashing down. His talent was something of an outlier though. Much as he was. It reminded him once again that no matter how hard he tried, he could not truly indulge the pretence otherwise.
When he got up to leave, he did not bother to glance down, for he already knew what he would see.
That the glass pattern, cyan and silver tiles, of the fountain had fractured his reflection into all eyes.
Emmanuel Esposito was born Alessandro Bianci, almost four decades earlier.
The son of wealthy socialite parents, he went much of his life blind to the cracks and stains in the woodwork of Florence. The blemishes and imperfections crumbled the illusion if one just looked hard enough. The clothes he’d worn growing up were beautifully embroidered, the hand-stitched work of a nameless, faceless tailor obscure to the customer, and content to remain that way. He’d been a curious child in his youth – ruddy-faced with dark curls and even darker eyes that trapped painful intelligence within, even as he continued to act in a manner befitting his age.
When he was nine, his mother commissioned a body-length mirror for his room.
Un specchio per il mio cuore.
He scarcely had memories of the man who had installed that mirror – in his dreams, the man was as elusive as the billow of a cloak. An image caught at the corner of the eye, and that remained the extent of it. He remembered the gold stitches within the cuffs of the elbows, however, as startling as the welded twists and curves of the mirror frame, wrought with a thousand vertices and stylized eyes. He could not remember the voice – the folly of human memory filled in the gaps instead, and he heard it through the flute of his own vocal cords.
It had been a magnificent work of art. He appreciated it. That was the year he began the work of his own hands – in the garden of Scutellastra cochlears down in the more quiet parts of the sprawling acres of the land, where the brackish waters of the pond clashed against the unbudging soil.
Sometimes, he saw something else.
In the glistening shells of the snails, past the rings of the ageless bark-shaped calcite creature. In the hollow of night, past the wandering shadows and wearily trickling moonlight past the curtains. In the breath of flames in the fireplace. In the pooling of the bathwater turned black just before he pulled the plug.
Himself, but a stranger in its entirety.
He catalogued the imperfections – the sunken flesh of his own cheeks, the sallowness of his skin. As if carved from the work of a long-dead artist’s hands as a vessel of tragedy. The wrong shade of his own eyes, occasionally crystal for a split-second. The imprint of antler horns sprouting like a stretching palm behind the back of his head, the quiver of blood seeping through the cracks of his fingertips.
When he ate, the food became ash.
When he drank, he swallowed copper.
Alessandro Bianci did not remain long in his parent’s house. He tried to outrun the inevitability of his future, the scenes of a dream that long since haunted him – a huntsman’s rifle clutched in his hands as he stalked through the woods of bramble and bristles, a cleaver held by angled wrists, the steadiness as he’d cut through flesh and snapped the animal bones free as easily as breath cycled through his own gaping chest. Then he’d wept, even as the transient hunt spurred him to sink silver into the heart of the beast, at the same instance the maw closed in around his lolling, broken neck.
He did his best to forget.
That, on occasion, the stag would take that little boy to play in the snow and return him hours later.
Anticipating the moment of his partaking the most – a small wooden bowl clutched in tiny hands as the child drank the bone broth of his own missing marrow, savoured the biroldo of his congealed blood – and then just for a moment – became Other enough to speak.
“You brought me flowers.” He says, surprised.
Agnello was a boy of eleven who frequented the area around the fountain in which Emmanuel spent much of his days. The child’s elbows and knees were stained with earth, a gap between his front two teeth – a fact that did not appear to deter him as he beamed up. “The lady at the flower shop asked me.” He whispered loudly and then held up his prize for Emmanuel to see – a single folded Euro.
Agnello took a deep breath, and then continued shriller as if mimicking a woman’s voice, “La notte s’avvicina–”
Emmanuel hummed the next line of the traditional lullaby, “La fiamma traballa.”
Agnello’s eyes lit up. “Si, si!”
Satisfied that the message had apparently been delivered, the child waved into the distance, at an unseen patron behind his back. Emmanuel obediently did not crane his neck to look.
Instead, he took the asphodels. The petals were soft beneath his touch.
He gave the boy a coin and watched the child wander away, wistfully mourning his own lost childhood.
He let the song run its course in his mind – it cut through, the angles hurting him when he tried to think, a river diverting from the murky embankments of its prison. When it finished, he peered into the dizzying, maroon eyes of the stag in the rippling waters of the fountain, and said mirthlessly, “The gift of my own elegy. I can’t decide if it’s rude or simply befitting.”
It promised peace after death.
But there was a hunger that gnawed at the pit of his gut. He remained, a Venetian mask of starvation hung among many others. Desolate, in the midst of thousands. He thought of the nymph Chloris and a simultaneous death and rebirth of one passing into the divine – the arrival of an eternal spring forever immortalised in brushstroke and mythology. Botticelli’s rendition of La Primavera.
Everything eventually came full circle, he decided.
He thought of the broken body of that girl he had stumbled upon once, eyes unseeing and blood the halo and spread of wings across her broken back on the cobblestones, right before he’d called the Polizia. He thought of the mound of flesh he’d seen in the catacombs, a living hive written on the body of a dead man. He had not pressed in for a closer look, if only for fear of recognition.
But willing blindness promised safety only for a short while.
And he felt so very alone.
He sat there a little longer before he finally stood to his feet. The tiles were silent watching stones, muting the colours. There was a strange hazy quality to his mind, as if he suspected he was going to do something very foolish but found himself simultaneously too entrenched to put a stop to it. The gurgle of the fountain, a distant memory at the back of his mind, he passed through the streets like a ghost wandering familiar walls, retracing the steps that had been trodden on thousands of times before.
He felt grief, if only for the fact he could not keep his promise to the pack of stray dogs that wandered the length of the adjacent streets. He prayed the creatures would find mercy at the often unforgiving hands of the world.
The thud of hooves against the pavement guided him home. Losing battles and screaming against windmills – he was tired of fighting both. The clang of the bell hung above the shop door rattled as he pulled it open. There was a particular artisan who made his workshop in the heart of the bustling city there, even as he remained hidden by the maze of side alleys and narrow forks in the unmarked back roads. Emmanuel was certain he had never stepped foot in this place before.
Yet, he knew every inch carved into his own thundering heart.
The artisan – now elderly – looked up and simply watched him through pale, milky eyes. A blinded man desperately clinging to the beloved tools of his craft, living in the mausoleum of his own past gladly, if only for that comforting whisper of familiarity. The only thing that stood out, that coaxed a breathless laugh from Emmanuel’s throat, was the sight of the gold stitches in those cuffs, now worn and faded but still irrevocably fashioned upon fabric.
“Bouongiorno.” He said.
The man grunted.
“I know you. You- gave me something of mine.”
A slow stiffening, but little reaction otherwise.
“It’s lost,” Emmanuel said. “And it’s so alone. Missing the other half. Una cornice di occhi. Osserva, si?”
Finally, the man nodded slowly and then stumbled over to where he stood to grasp Emmanuel’s elbows as a clutch for balance even as he steered him into the back of the shop, past the fraying curtain of beads that hung like a piteous waterfall of diluted colour. In that small storage room at the back, Emmanuel finally saw the twin to the mirror in his childhood bedroom – now surely saturated in dust and neglected – and through it, the quivering reflection of a small, ruddy-faced child of nine. Dark eyes. Dark curls. Trapped within his skin even as the world revolved in a distant atmosphere.
He stared at it in wonder – a memory or reality preserved in silver and not amber, where the fire of time could not whittle dry its bones and send it away as vanishing smoke into the night sky.
No longer were there human fingers digging into the meat of his arm, but the claws of something wickedly sharp. Hot animal breath the wick of an unseen candle against the back of his neck.
The imprint of antlers sprouting beneath the back of his head in the reflection.
And he finally understood the entirety of it. It stayed there, unblinking – beautiful and horrific – vicious knowledge that steeped his mind like a heavy blanket of fog. Buckle or break, it was a bloody truth he could not escape. He saw it in the silver shards sewn within his skin, the unnatural gleam of everything around him reflected in pitch-perfect synchronicity, a perfect mirror of sight and sound, as he’d gleaned the innermost thoughts of those around him. Nothing existed but a hollow vessel, except that hunger. That desperate, insatiable need to fill in the chasm of a space lacking blood and marrow and bone and breath. Merely the facsimile of clockwork flesh.
Twin mirrors, peered into the other, revealing a near-infinite expanse of repetition.
That, outside, beyond the glass, thunder rapped against the steel frame of the windows.
Written By: Trishta
Edited By: Ashley