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Thy Fair Imperfect Shade

I was walking home from work at dawn (I’d been up all night scrubbing floors) trying to memorize a poem. It was one of Shakespeare’s sonnets and I gripped the piece of paper it was written on, murmuring lines over and over.

The walk took me through the Botanical Gardens, specifically the rhododendron dell. Being spring, it was a mess of colored trumpets, and there were also dozens of azaleas whose lurid flowers exuded a cloying scent. The new sunlight was all intense and pink on the surrounding greenery.

 

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fleshy

 

I was tired and kept my eyes on the paper and the ground in front of me. But suddenly there was a twitch under one of the rhododendron bushes. I saw an arm, then a hand that was moving over some other object: a face, a human face, with eyes! And both bodies—the one connected to the face and the one connected to the arm—were flesh-coloured.

Thinking I must be hallucinating, I looked back at the piece of paper for reassurance, walked on and slowly said the poem’s last two lines:

 

 All days are nights to see till I see thee,

And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me.

 

After walking on a few minutes, another movement caught my eye. A shrub was quivering violently even though there was no wind. Looking more closely, it was clear that there were two interlocked figures lying beneath the plants, also nude.

Further on, right on the border of the rhododendron dell, before the lawn turned into the rock-garden section, something else caught my attention. Four shoes stuck out from under a camellia. The shoes were attached to legs and I heard a soft but definite moan.

Flustered, I trained my eyes on the paper and once again concentrated with all my might on the final couplet.

 

All days are nights to see till I see thee,

And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me.

 

When I came through the front door of our apartment about five minutes later, my Swedish flatmate Pernilla appeared, skipping into the room. She was wearing a yellow summer dress and had her hair done in ringlets. She held a lacquered red bag in one hand and wore pretty matching red shoes.

“Oh, it’s you,” her face fell.

“Are you waiting for someone?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said, sighed, twirled around and left.

I went to the bathroom to wash my hands and when I returned to the living room, I saw my other flatmate Tony. He looked like a movie star, as usual. Tall, strong-jawed, clean-shaven, dressed nicely in a suit, he held a single red rose in his hand.

“Hello!” I simpered.

“Oh, hi.” He frowned worriedly. “Do you know what time it is?”

“Yes, it’s about nine o’clock. Are you waiting for someone?”

“Yes, Elizabeth and I are going out. It’s our one-month anniversary today.” He grinned.

“Oh wow! Congratulations!”

“Thanks.”

I went upstairs, closed the door, drew my curtains and lay down on my bed. My mind felt like a pot. Food had been burnt in the pot, then the burnt crust had been scraped out with a spoon. Then someone had left the pot out in the rain by the seaside and it was corroding at high speed, disintegrating in front of my eyes.

What was the meaning of all the lovers under the bushes? Wasn’t it cold and damp on the ground? How long had they been lying there? All night? How come there had been so many of them? What could induce them to lie together so closely? And why was everybody waiting for someone else?

I tried to still the buzzing in my mind with the same old couplet.

 

All days are nights to see till I see thee,

And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me.

 

The room suddenly brightened, the lamp glowing golden, sweetly illuminating the books and desk and wall calendar empty of any appointments.

 “I thought I turned that off,” I muttered and got up to flick the light switch. I tried it once, then twice, but the more I flicked, the brighter it got. My eyes ached. The room seemed to sparkle and gleam.

There was a knock at the door.

“Who is it?”

An unfamiliar voice answered, muffled and deep.

“She’s next door!” I yelled, thinking it must be Pernilla’s stupid boyfriend.

The knock came again. Sighing, I flung the door open too quickly and in no very good mood.

In front of me was a large smudge. I can’t think of any other way to describe it. It wasn’t something you really saw, but when I looked through it, the things behind it seemed blurry—the stairs, the print of ‘The Kiss’ by Klimt, Tony’s bedroom door—it all seemed strangely indistinct.

As I was standing there, gaping and thinking my eyes must need checking, the smudge pushed past me and invaded my room. I discovered this when I shut my door again and everything had that blurry look. There was also a faint smell of nutmeg.

When I tried the light-switch this time, it worked. In fact it worked too well, eliminating every last trace of light, even the friendly little sneaks between curtain hems, even the under-door glow. At the time, though, the utter darkness came as a relief, since I’d been up all night under fluorescent lights and my eyes hurt.

On the verge of falling asleep, I heard a rustle in the corner. My whole body tensed as I listened, hoping the sound was coming from outside my door. Pernilla’s closet was next to my room—maybe she was looking through some plastic bags or something. 

“Hey!” I said, on the off chance it really was in my room, “Stop that!”

It stopped. Somehow that wasn’t as reassuring as I’d hoped. The next three seconds of silence made my heart boom.

“How’s tricks?” a voice reverberated in my ear, the prolonged ‘s’ sounding rather malevolent. I was sent into a paralysis of fear.

“So, you wanted to see me, then?” the whisper continued.

“No?” I managed to squeak.

“Yes you did,” it said, louder this time.

“I don’t think so,” I replied.

“Ahem, yes you did. Remember the sonnet?”

“What about it?”

“You said all days were nights to see until me you saw.”

“Huh? Oh! But….I wasn’t thinking of anyone in particular. I don’t even know you.”

There was a long pause.

“Why did you say it like that, then?” the voice said.

“Like what?”

“You said it three times, in a yearning tone.”

“I have to memorize it for my exam, that’s all. I don’t even think it’s a very good poem.”

“It’s not a poem,” the voice said. It sounded irked.

“Yes, it’s a sonnet, fourteen lines and a rhyming scheme. Three quatrains, a coup–”

“It’s a spell. They’re all spells.”

“What?”

“It’s a love spell. You summoned me up with it.”

“It’s a magic spell?”

“Zounds, you’re a real knife-wit aren’t you? Yes, it’s a magic spell to summon a dream lover.”

“A dream—? But I don’t need—how do I unsummon you?” I wailed.

“Alas, what courtesy is this?”

“Nothing personal, sorry. Exams are next week and I’m supposed to avoid stress.”

The smudge sighed.

“There is only one way to cast out a dream lover; you needs must find a real one.”

“Eh? But… like I said, I have exams next week. Couldn’t you just leave?”

“I am not free to leave of my own accord. It is your place to reverse the spell if you wish. Meantimes, move over.” I felt the edge of the duvet lifting up.

“What? Now hold on a minute—”

“Tush! Your honor’s safe with me. I’d sooner ravish a she-ape. The spell demands I sleep in the same bed as my summoner and I must follow the letter of the law. Besides, the floor is cold.”

“Oh all right,” I grumbled.

I hunched over towards the wall and felt the mattress bounce as the smudge got in next to me. Pretty soon I heard a soft, rhythmic sound like the ocean and realized he was snoring.

***

The next morning in my Eighteenth-Century English Poetry class, I cast my eyes around the lecture hall for a likely looking candidate. The dream lover had kept me awake until morning with his snoring; I felt exhausted and desperate. There was no way I was going to manage the exams with that blight around.

There was one man up in the front row. He must have been short-sighted because he always sat there. No one else was sitting in that whole row.

I felt like crocodile seeing a baby wildebeest straggle after its herd.

“Hi there!” I plonked myself down beside him.

He jumped.

“Hello,” he answered reluctantly.

“So, what brings you here?” I asked, then laughed at my own joke. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. Too fast. Change tack. Serious.

“So, what did you think about ‘The Rape of the Lock’?” I asked gravely.  

“Hmmm…” he said, writing the date at the top of his tablet.

“‘The peer now spreads the glitt’ring forfex wide/ T’inclose the lock; now joins it, to divide.’ I don’t know about you, but I thought that was really provocative.”

I nudged him with an elbow and grinned with my teeth. The sight of my face so close seemed to transfix him. He stared for a full three seconds.

“Excuse me,” he said, pursing his lips. He gathered up his tablet and bag and stalked over to a row further back.

 

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Aubrey Beardsley illustration (1896) for ‘The Rape of the Lock’

***

Next class was Greek Art. I noticed a shaggy boy napping in the back row and made a beeline for the seat next to him.

“Hello, mind if I sit here?” I said breezily.

He snorted awake, twitching into consciousness. I caught a gratifying whiff of his scent—mildew, tomato sauce, damp wool, beer.

“Hur? Ngarhhg,” he gurgled companionably, then coughed.

“My name’s Philippa, what about you?” I said, extending a hand.

“Andy,” he shook my hand. It felt a little clammy, but otherwise good. His eyes were a nice blue.

Professor Henderson bustled into the room and started setting up slides in the projector.

“Today we’re going to be looking at kouroi,” she warbled and switched off the lights. The first slide appeared on the wall, the statue of a naked, muscular young man beaming happily, one foot in front of the other.

“This is a style of statue that seems to have originated in Ancient Egypt—note the nudity, which may have signified athleticism, though that is not properly established. This is an early example from the Archaic period. As time goes on, as you will see from the next slides, the poses become gradually more natural…”

I gazed at the muscular figures, swallowing hard and sneaking glimpses at Andy, who seemed to have drifted back off to sleep again. The smell of tomato sauce and beer-infused wool, together with the images of naked youths was starting to excite me.

 

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Kleobis and Biton (Delphi Archeological Museum)

 

 

Somewhere around the beginning of the Hellenistic period I started leaning into him. It was a novel sensation, the soft woolen sleeve, the new nuances of smell—could that be congealed lamb fat? Yes! And woody notes of foot sweat. I pressed my thigh against his., I nuzzled his shoulder. He woke up.

“Hey, what are you–?” He jerked away, losing his balance and falling off his chair.

 ***

I went home that night in a bad mood.

“How goes it?” said the smudge.

“What is that smell?” I said, dumping my bag on the floor and sniffing.

“Nothing,” said the voice. “I don’t smell anything.”

“That’s because you don’t have a nose. It’s like an estuary at low tide.”

“Oh. Haply it may be my vapors.”

“Your what?”

“Spirits emit vapors. When we’re released, our essences react with the coarse air.”

“Phew, it stinks!” I said, opening the windows as far as they could go.

“Well, I don’t like your meat smell either. Perfume would serve.”

“Oh god, this is a nightmare. I can’t breathe.”

“Did you find a real boyfriend?”

“No, I didn’t. I did get invited to leave my Greek Art course though,” I threw myself on the bed and hugged a pillow.

“Why?”

“It’s a long story.”

There was a long pause, which made me nervous.  

“What?” I asked suspiciously.

“May haps…” said the voice.

“Yes?” I said.

“Perchance, if…”

“Spit it out!”

“If you would show yourself to better advantage, look to your apparel.”

“What’s wrong with my apparel?”

“Slovenly and shapeless.”

“For your information, it’s not the Dark Ages any more. Clothes are made for comfort. Corsets and whatnot are out. This is called ‘athleisure gear’ which is considered very trendy and meets all my daily needs.”

“You dress like a fishmonger.”

“You don’t even have a body, so I don’t think I’ll take fashion advice from you, thanks.”

“Tut. If we are forever entwined, then…what must be must be.”

As low as I felt, the prospect of eternity with that smell gave me the motivation to act.

“All right. I’m sorry. How should I dress?”

 

***

Thanks to the voice, I left the flat the next morning in the only gown-like garment I owned—one I’d bought two years before for gran’s funeral. I took some scissors to it to it to enhance the cleavage, and put a red scarf around the middle to create the illusion of a waist. Then I washed and brushed my long hair and wore it loose and flowing instead of in a ponytail as usual. The voice had told me to smile and sashay in a more feminine way instead of what he’d termed my ‘oafish lurching’.

I went to my Latin class in this outfit with the addition of a wreath fashioned from flowers that grew outside the Geography building. My classmates looked at me strangely. I smiled, since the smudge had also told me that would help.

“Are you going to the Woodstock party this afternoon?” asked Trent, a bearded youth who had a large gap between his two front teeth and knew Cicero’s letters by heart.

 I kept smiling and wondered what he was talking about.

“At the Common Room, at two o’clock?” he added.

“Oh, yes,” I lied.

“I thought so, with your hippie stuff on. It suits you.”

“Oh thanks!”

“Doesn’t it?” added Raewyn, a little too enthusiastically, as if the sight of my trackpants and ragged T-shirts had physically been hurting her.

“Are you going to the…party?” I asked Trent, sensing a possibility.

“Yeah. Us three should go together,” he said.

“Not me,” Raewyn said, “I’ve got to get back to my kid. Babysitter has to leave at one o’clock.”

“Well, you and me then,” Trent smiled at me.

“OK!” I said, a bit too loudly.

So far so good. Now I just had to ‘seal the deal’, as it were.

 

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***

 “Will you marry me?” I asked Trent after the second song.

“Eh?” he said. 

“Will you marry me?” I yelled at the top of my voice. Several people stared.

Trent blushed and scratched his neck, then laughed and clapped me on the shoulder.

“You have a funny sense of humor buddy.”

“No! I’m serious. Married! Me!” I yelled with hysterical cheer.

He coughed and mumbled something I couldn’t hear, then stormed off out of the Common Room. I wasn’t going to let my one chance at sanity escape, so hastened after him and caught up with him outside the library. His face was a picture of fury.

“Why the hell was that about?” he yelled at me.

“What?”

“Who do you think you are?” he raged. “I thought we were having a good time and you had to ruin it!”

“I don’t underst—”

“Come on! Admit it, you were acting the fool to embarrass me.”

“I was not! How was I acting like a fool? I just forgot my syntax for a second.”

He gradually saw my confusion was sincere.

“You were serious?”

“Deadly.”

“Oh.”

“But, if you’re opposed to the institution of marriage, boyfriend is acceptable. Even for a short time. More than a day though, two days would be ideal. But you have to really agree to it. No backsies…for the agreed duration.”

“What?” he squinted at me, suspicious. “Do you have some kind of mental condition?”

I thought about it and nodded. “You…could say that.”

I took his hand and led him over to a bench.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you, really. It’s just, this, um…condition of mine made me say the wrong thing. But I’m sincere, completely. I like you.”

He sat sunk in thought.

“So what is this condition, nymphomania or something?”

“No!” I said. “No, nothing like that.”

“Then what? Tourettes? Epilepsy? Syphilis?”

“Erm, it doesn’t exactly have a name yet.”

“Are you on any medication?”

“No, but I’m considering it,” I replied honestly. 

He sighed, looked at his knuckles, then at the ground.

“Well, you might as well know that I like you too,” he mumbled.

What?”

“I like you,” he said, looking me in the eyes as if he was ready to be executed.

“But, why didn’t you tell me sooner?” I asked, genuinely upset at the thought that I could have had two nights without the Shakespearian Lagoon creature stinking up my room.  

“I knew you would never like me back. That’s partly why I got mad, I thought you were making fun of me.”

“Oh,” I said, and forgot about the smudge as I felt unfamiliar but interesting emotions emerge in my bosom. “But that’s…very strange!” I murmured.

Encouraged, he kissed me.

“So you agree to be my actual boyfriend?” I asked, suddenly feeling elated.

He smiled. “That’s a weird way of putting it, but—”

“Say it exactly like that,” I said. “I agree to be your actual boyfriend.”

He put his hand on his heart and said, “I agree to be your actual boyfriend.”

“Now twice more.”

He raised an eyebrow.

“It’s part of my condition,” I said. “I’ll explain later.” 

“I agree to be your actual boyfriend. I agree to be your actual boyfriend.” 

And that was when the spell was broken. We fell in actual love and the smudge was gone, though it took a week of airing and Febreze to get rid of the Shakespearean smell.

 

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Braindamage, Dreams and ‘The Book’

Visionary artist and creative powerhouse Andrea Signorelli is probably best known in his native Turin as the singer, songwriter, bass player and founding member of the Progressive Thrash Metal band Braindamage. But apart from that, he’s also a very talented painter, history buff, school teacher and writer. With characteristic generosity, enthusiasm and eloquence, he discusses his views on creativity and literature. Thanks Andrea! 

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  1. What’s the difference, for you, between the different modes of art. When you paint a picture, for example, are you intending to create a different effect than when you write a song?

 

First and foremost, let me thank you for defining me as a writer: Among the many appositions you used to introduce me, writer is the one I surely deserve the least, but well, thank you!

The creative process, to me, is strictly related to the idea of fighting demons and trying to bring oneiric matter to a defined state of being, (you may remember the film The Last Wave, where Aboriginals bring matter from the Dream Time). I can’t tell any difference between painting, writing and composing a song, since the three processes evoke one another. I always listen to music while painting or writing, need to draw while composing and have an image in mind while I am finding the words for the lyrics of Braindamage’s songs. It’s like cooking: you need something to drink, good music in the background, the right weather, and love for the person you’re preparing the meal for, perhaps mixing in ingredients one would never use in that recipe, unless the whispering demon suggested so. Art is for art’s sake people used to say who deserved to be defined as Artists. I create here, because something elsewhere is after me.

 

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Cooking up art with ‘The Kitchen Maid’ by Pieter Cornelisz van Rijck

 

 

  1. Having been lucky enough to read a draft of your novel, I recognize several of its characters also appear in your lyrics (for example Queen Acadienne). I’m curious to know more about the creative process – did you visualize the entire story first and then use it as a common source for lyrics and novel, or did the idea develop as a series of songs?

 

I would dare to assert that each image, character, note, drawing, reminiscence of a shadow in the back of my mind or ghost in the corner of my eye, is a living thing, provided with the ability of evolving autonomously. A philosophical ideal that had a strong fascination on me was the concept of Hyperuranium. The lunar world where Astolfo finds Orlando’s wits in Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso describes a similar place, where things are lost and found.  There is a model, somewhere in the dungeons of my brain, and this model is waiting to be summoned and to take part in the real world. Once an image appears it is difficult to me to eradicate it. It takes a shape, a name, features and self-defines its presence in my world through continuously suggesting to me how it could be and what it is for, passing the threshold between the two worlds to stay or to fall back and disappear into the shadows again. As for Acadienne I, just to mention one, it started with the image of a woman–I could only see her back, red dress and hair. Her face was covered by a golden mask, reflected in a small mirror. I had to paint her and she came “to life”. Then a name was suggested to me as I was reading a book about the Seven Years War, a pale vision of her features took shape, her character arose as I wrote about her and then she claimed her place in Braindamage’s songs. I sing about her pain, her bitterness against her mother, her relentless recourse to floating mirrors and tarot cards with questions about the future, and her desperate fight against her sister, the ruthless queen who reigns from Narvik to Florence, advised by a white cat, in the desperate world to be in my book-paintings-songs.

 

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The painting of Acadienne I became the cover art for The Downfall (2016)

 

 

  1. The lyrics for Braindamage (in all eight albums!) are in English. Did you originally write them in Italian? If you wrote them in English first, did you find that composing in a foreign language allowed you to access a different voice?

 

At the very beginning of Braindamage, back in 1988, my English was barely acceptable, survival-level, I think. Nonetheless I was arrogant enough to think that I could write the lyrics directly in English.

I made lots of errors, but nobody pointed them out … then I got used to conceiving what I could write, skipping Italian and thinking in English, which, in the long run and when I eventually improved my knowledge of your language, helped me a lot in creating sentences that satisfied me. I love Italian and have done my best to speak it and teach it to my pupils the best that I can, but as for composing the lyrics of the songs–let alone the fact that Italian does not match with metal–English is perfect. It can express strong concepts with fewer words and has the reminiscences and resonance of a distant world, to me, both in time and in space.

 

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Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab

 

 

  1. I know you’re a huge fan of Moby Dick. Why does this novel mean so much to you? Are there any other works of fiction that inspire you to the same extent?

 

I am shivering at this very moment, while trying to address a shape to such a meaningful question.

Moby Dick is not a book, is The Book. In my humble opinion, let this be clear. Every time my thoughts plunge into the ocean where some of the images and characters of Moby Dick (The Book, henceforth) are woven, I ask myself “Why am I so fond of it and always have been?”. A part of my inner self simply remains silent, because the answer is so obvious to it that it would not be worth the while wasting words. Nevertheless, I have to give a reasonable answer to the question, even to myself.

It all started tens of years ago, a child, watching Gregory Peck tearing the hell out of his soul, on top of the Pequod, suffocating St. Elmo’s fire on his harpoon and riding The Whale just to find his death and calling Pequod’s crew soon to follow him. That was the film, an amazing one, I think, whereas all the other film transpositions of The Book deeply disappointed me. I have Cesare Pavese’s translation in Italian of The Book, despised by many readers (“It is Moby Dick written by C. Pavese, not Melville”), although I was immediately fascinated by it. I must made clear that, at that time, I was a voracious reader of sea-adventure books, and The Book was a natural step in my playlist.

Awareness came later, many years later. The Book retains the entire path of a man’s life. It begins like Dante’s Comedy, lost in haze in the middle of his life, continues like The Odyssey, through enchantment, monsters, thirst and a desperate search for an answer, and finishes like The Akallabêth , with Ahab as Ar-Pharazon, bringing all the rest of his folk to ruin, in the meaningless task of looking god in its eyes, asking “Why?”,  just to be dissolved into  unanswered dust. I discovered, through time, that each of the characters could be oneself, from Ishmael to Ahab, passing through Queequeg and Tatshego. Pequod’s crew is like a tarot deck, each card depicting a character, building the fate and path that will lead to madness and ruin. Ahab has no remorse in using the capital, industry and manpower that are not his property and that he should use for the good of the people to pursue his personal revenge. He infringes the rules of Protestant society, putting himself above all reason and common sense, because he wants to know the answer to the unspoken question: did god create us for the good of mankind or is it just a remorseless, insensitive blindfolded child who plays with toys without knowing that they are living, breathing, suffering thinking and dying?

It’s important to me because it retains all the questions I always ask myself, every day. I love it because it is a timeless endeavour : “Ahab is for ever Ahab, man. This whole act’s immutably decreed. ’Twas rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before this ocean rolled.” Nothing is real anymore, aboard of Pequod, since the crew swore they would hunt Moby Dick, instead of doing their duty as whale-hunters. The men on Pequod are trapped in a time-loop, time and time again and so are we. This world is The Book, I am part of it, it is a fact immutably decreed…

 

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  1. How would you describe the importance of creative expression in your life? Is it catharsis, play, meditation, or something else?

 

Rather than the importance of the single, peculiar moment and how would it affect a short period of time, I would like to talk about the crucial aspect of expressing oneself over a lifetime, which has actually happened to me. Art is our playful way to create things which could not otherwise exist in this world. I had an entire world to bring out and an angering tsunami that could not make its way from the depths of the ocean up to the surface. I was scared of myself, of my thoughts, of my desires, my feelings and images deep within my very soul. They urged at my door, asking for a release but I did not want to let them out. Music was the first and pivotal vehicle to give a creative form to all this. Music, particularly Metal, paved the way for my monsters to see the sunlight without causing harm, getting civilized, little by little, disarming them of their weapons, getting along with one another: myself and Them.

Starting painting and drawing was a turning point in this process, it allowed me to give a face and a shape to the demons, fixing their features but preventing them from taking a foothold as conquerors. They are sort-of allies. My creative process never ceases, not even at night, during my dreams, which are a separate world, pretty similar to that built up by Randolph Carter. But this would take another page alone…

 

Dreamworld-map

 

 

  1. How do your roles of teacher and artist intersect? Do they complement or feed each other somehow? How do you encourage students’ creativity?

 

The role of teacher implies so many aspects it would be quite annoying mention them all, but the fact that I had so much interest in arts helped me a lot both in building a personal curriculum and in connecting with the pupils. Children have a natural skill in creating things, drawing, painting, as well as pretending to be someone they are not, in order to play games together. My duty is to encourage and protect their personalities, will for expression and to accompany them throughout the path of childhood, giving them all the necessary tools, strength and courage they need to face life. As a matter of fact, there are lots of things that I learn from them in a mutual exchange of knowledge, feelings, discoveries, fear-facing challenges and quest for the unknown. My students, whenever they have accomplished their tasks along the day (eight hours every day), are authorized to get their drawing sheets and draw, create, write, colour, build at will. I never judge any of their creations unless they don’t use all the space on the paper or waste materials. They’re allowed to hang up their creations so that the rest of the classroom can share them and every day I make them watch , for 20 minutes or more, all the classics of animation films, especially Miyazaki, but also cartoon series, old adventure films which we can later discuss. I draw a lot together with them and some of my drawings are side by side with theirs on the wall. I play some music, of various genres and read a lot of books, tales, epic literature varying the text with funny sentences and fake characters (like the menacing Cicciobello doll who rides a wicked goat ruining all the tales, and who appears here and there for the children’s hilarity). I showed them spinning tops and they immediately started building them with Lego and other materials. There was a project to make a fabulous spaceship, which they later realized with toy bricks. There is no limit to imagination and I always try to trigger their will for creation.

 

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The Forest Spirit from Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke (image taken from https://entropymag.org/30-years-of-ghibli-princess-mononoke/ )

 

 

  1. Can you talk about the Tolkien school project you’re working on?

 

Well, I planned a project, funded by European community one year ago, together with some colleagues of mine, based on the idea of making the children act in English, with an English native speaker specialist who I would back as tutor and with a multimedia expert who would teach the kids how to prepare, film, cut and assemble a video of their own plays. The project, which lasts for two years, was accepted but not in the time I hoped, se we had to cut down on the hours which were reduced from 60 to 30 for the first year. I had to settle for it and withdraw from my initial idea (a theatre play of Tolkiens’ Bridge of Kazad-dum , from LOTR), to a more realistic  The Castle Which Could Not Stand, an English legend about Vortigern, Merlin that has been very dear to me since childhood. The pupils from a 5th grade class, together with Susan, the Australian specialist and Alessio, the film-maker, enthusiastically embraced the project, realizing a short video of professional quality and the kids performed it in front of the parents at the end of the school year. Next year we have 60 hours and we shall face my original task, with more experience and the same enthusiasm that led us through the previous year. I’m already trying to write down some of the script because we start as soon as October.

 

Вортигерн_(Гуртеирн,_Гуортигерн)
Detail from Lambeth Palace Library MS 6 folio 43v; Vortigern stands at the edge of a pool where two dragons emerge, one red and one white, which do battle in his presence.

 

 

  1. You have a strong interest in history, evident in songs like ‘Seven Feet of English Soil’ about the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066. What is the distinction or relationship between fiction and history, in your view? Are you a fan of historical fiction?

 

Many famous metal bands have written songs about historical topics throughout their careers, but most of them take a didactic attitude, describing famous events and, often, battle. I am not interested in that since History is a sacred subject to me. I don’t want to substitute books, which took years and great effort for famous scholars to write, with a twenty-line text in rhymes inspired by Wikisomething and often full of errors. My interest is to merge human feelings and history with one another, overlapping facts that actually occurred in a sort of rêverie. I’m not Manzoni or Scott, they were true writers; I can’t be anything but a minstrel, a storyteller by the fireplace, who tries to evoke spirits to amuse the audience.

The concept of time, this is important. I see time as a screw that constantly turns, which never ceases to penetrate reality, giving the impression of moving forward but actually remaining in the same place. Time brings on events so they apparently follow one another, but in my opinion they just take the place occupied by the previous one, substituting its substance with reshaped matter; it is all at the same time, same place, with the same  actors with different make up.

Reality uses history to reassure itself of its existence.  History uses reality to tell us a partial truth or a complete lie, we use them both to play on.

I’m not a fan of historical fiction, most of them are just as bad as their actors and directors, twisting facts and figures in order to show good-looking actors/actresses with fashionable contemporary haircuts to attract more viewers. Some of them are terrible…

 

 

 

  1. There is a hint of supernatural menace in your work, a sense that humans are more or less the pawns of higher powers. I am reminded of Giorgio di Maria’s The Twenty Days of Turin, the tale of a city famed for its sinister side. Do you see yourself as part of this Torinese tradition?

 

 Rather than part of the Torinese tradition, I consider myself a sort of piece of furniture of Turin, a brick in the walls, a statue in its parks, one of its living shadows and ghosts which merrily stroll along its wide, empty, sunny boulevards. My mother’s forebears moved to Piemonte from France in 1696, settling in Turin after some decades. I feel lost when I am far from Turin, although I’ve often gone abroad for leisure and concerts, and I’ve visited most of England and the town of York between 2006 and 2010 for reasons too long to mention.

Turin is to me what Boston was to Randolph Carter: the world beyond the mirror of consciousness. The Twenty Days of Turin represents to my cultural formation the Milestone, together with listening to Blue Oyster Cult and reading their lyrics. Turin, in the ’60s and ’70’s gained its fame due to the presence of people like [Gustave Adolfo] Rol , [Gianluigi] Mariannini and [Lorenzo] Alessandri. There soon followed some movies like Profondo Rosso and books like La Donna della Domenica, which bolstered the idea of a Town halfway between Good and Evil. I don’t want to state what I think about this wicked aura but I must admit that it had a strong influence in my formation. I believe that we are under threat, that we are less than pawns on a cosmic chessboard: we are simply to creation what cockroaches are to us, nothing. We are schwas in the Italian alphabet, (they don’t exist) and somewhere in time, a restless power from beyond will decide to use our blue marble as a place to spend his everlasting summer, using us as carpets. Moreover, it shall become another source for boredom for them, a faceless whispering suggestion that leave us to misery and famine before it leaves in search of another plaything.

 

 

 

 

 

Interview on CLASH! podcast

Today my interview with Carl and Nathan from CLASH! podcast became available here.

I was very happy and grateful to discuss my book, Girls of the Empty Quarter, which is published in Italy as Le Raggaze di Rub’ al Khali. It was an exciting chance for me to share some of my experiences living and working in Najran, Saudi Arabia. I describe the (sometimes very funny) implications and inconveniences of living in a closed society that strictly enforces gender segregation. We also discuss how a new generation of Saudi women are adapting to an age of advance technology and globalization.

 

girls-saudi-arabia

 

CLASH! is a podcast that delves into the history and socio-political contexts of world events, especially conflicts. Carl and Nathan are a couple of brilliant young Californians who offer an enlightening and entertaining take on everything from the Dutch-Chinese war on Borneo to surfing to the Sino-American trade war. If you’re intrigued, have a listen to some of their publicly available posts. If you enjoy the content as much as I do, please consider supporting their work; the cost of subscription is as low as $1 per show.

 

Clash-Logo-3

 

 

Queen Hatshepsut’s Prospect

It was a sunny spring morning by the duck pond in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. Breezes tickled the elms. Swans slid insouciantly over the lake. Turtles basked. It was exactly the kind of morning lovers canoodle on park benches, happily trepanned in the proximity of their respective beloveds.

 

prospect-park-lake

 

There were, in fact, many such couples in the park that morning, but Jeanine Tod was not one of them. Her dejected attitude, hunched posture and watery eyes struck a jarring note in the spring symphony.

It hadn’t always been this way. Five minutes before, she’d been half of an apparently happy pair. She and a youth named Zach had been holding hands and regarding three ducklings waddling past in the wake of their dignified female parent. She’d asked Zach if they weren’t the darlingest duckywuckies he ever did see and he had readily agreed that they were. Then, just as he was leaning in to kiss her with the lovelight in his eyes, she’d put a finger to his lips and gave him The Speech.

It was always the same. She had it memorized by heart, right down to the inflections and pauses calculated to make It more persuasive (or at least, less immediately objectionable). She’d practiced it so often that she was almost convinced that this time it would work. This time, all would go well.

It had gone worse than ever. At the end of the speech, Zach was silent for several seconds, leaving her in agonizing doubt as to whether her fond hope had soared to the clouds or plunged to the abyss. She stole a glance at his face and saw that his cheeks were flushed and that he was staring into the distance with a kind of inscrutable squint.

“So, how about it?” she asked brightly.

“Um…” Zach was biting his lower lip as if thinking it over. She reached out a hand to pat his arm, thinking that this little physical caress might help tip the scales in her favor. At the moment of contact, Zach sprang up from the bench as if he’d been electrocuted. He opened his mouth in a noiseless scream, then turned around and started running away as fast as he could.

In spite of her disappointment, Jeanine couldn’t help admiring the grace and speed of his retreat. He wove through cyclists, baby strollers, clots of school children and dog walkers with astonishing athleticism. She glanced down at the ground and noticed that one of his sandals had fallen off in his urgent haste to get away. She picked one of them up and stroked it affectionately as the first tears fell.

“What a shame! Better luck next time,” said Apollonax brightly. “Now, let’s take the R train to Manhattan and visit my uncle at the museum.” The jeweled scarab paced restlessly on her shoulder as it rose and fell erratically with her sobs.

 

bug2

“You’re ruining my life! I hope you know that,” Jeanine hissed. “How am I supposed to go on like this? It’s stupid. There’s no point! No one is ever going to agree to it. I hate you!”

Apollonax opened up his carapace and buzzed over to her other shoulder.

“Pish! You don’t know what you’re saying. Anyone would think that you were one of this vulgar new breed with nary a thought for the journey ahead. Remember, you are the heiress of traditions preserved for millennia! Remember that you are the queen’s representative on earth at this time!”

“Funny, I don’t remember agreeing to that,” Jeanine scowled.

“Your obstinate ingratitude pains Her Majesty unspeakably.”

Jeanine thought about saying exactly what she thought of the Queen, but the truth was she was a little bit afraid of her. She decided to hold her tongue.

“I’ve told you before,” said Apollonax in the tone of an exasperated teacher, “As soon as you are able to find a suitable volunteer, you may abandon your privileges as Queen’s Envoy (though why you would want to is beyond me) and pursue whatever foolish nonsense you prefer. At that time I will leave you in peace, but not before.”

Jeanine clenched her fists, closed her eyes and counted to three.

“Perhaps,” she said in a strangled voice, “If I might suggest some small modifications to the formula? It doesn’t seem to be working very well as is.”

“Any alteration of the text, apart from exact translations, is strictly forbidden. And in fact, I must disagree with you here, it is working very well. Do you think we should be admitting all and sundry? No! This is a formula that has been perfected over millennia. If you alter it in the smallest way, the results will not be admissible.”

“It’s just,” Jeanine sighed, wiping her cheeks with a sleeve, “I don’t think describing the embalming process in such detail is conducive to—what I mean is, it’s extremely off-putting, especially the bit about transnasal craniotomy.”

Apollonax scoffed. “Bah! They don’t want to live forever? That’s their loss. Donkeys. Goat-fish. Doomed to crumble to dust. Mere chaff, that’s what they are. What you need is someone with the pure, light heart of an emperor!”

“Why don’t we try the hospices or the rest homes or something? At least people there have had a chance to contemplate the coffin. They might be more open to the idea of eternal life, seeing they’re on death’s doorstep already.”

“As you are perfectly well aware (or would be if you’d been listening), Her Majesty has very specific requirements.” His voice became higher, more nasal to indicate that he was quoting the holy ordinance, “Let the youth be young and well made, in excellent health, with a slim waist and broad shoulders, full lips and long feet. Let his voice be low and soft, let his heart be light.”

 

kouros

 

“Yes, yes, yes, I know. But, short of kidnapping, I’m telling you, no healthy young man is going to let his brains get sucked up through a straw for some crusty old queen. And that means, by extension, that I’m doomed to a life of having a beetle pontificating in my ear and—uh oh, is that the Police?”

“Quick! Make a fast retreat. These periods of incarceration are slowing us down.”

Jeanine, who had already instinctively risen to her feet, sat down again with a thud.

“I don’t think I will, actually. I’m sick of all this. A trip to the station would give me a rest from listening to you, at any rate.”

She sat with her arms folded until the officer approached. She looked down at a pair of black shoes and, despite her pique, noticed how long and slim they were.

“Excuse me, ma’am, is your name Jeanine?” came a voice unexpectedly soft and chocolatey.

“Yes, I’m Jeanine,” she said, still gazing at his shoes.

“We’ve received a complaint from a gentleman about abusive threats.”

“Threats?” Jeanine asked, looking up at a very fine head—full lips, almond-shaped eyes, smooth youthful forehead.

“Yes ma’am.” He seemed to blush a little under her admiring gaze. “It seems that a woman of your description was threatening to present him as a human sacrifice, then to, ahem, do things to his corpse.”

“What?” Jeanine feigned shock, then giggled. “Oh my goodness, what a mix-up! The poor boy is confused. I was just telling him about my research project. No wonder he ran away!”

“Research?” the officer asked doubtfully.

“Yes, I’m a student of Egyptology, you see, and I was describing to him how they used to prepare royalty for the afterlife. It didn’t even occur to me that he’d take it personally! I’m very sorry.”

The policeman relaxed a little and smiled.

“Well, that’s a relief. I have to say that you don’t have the look of a Zodiac killer.”

“Well, thank you for the compliment!” Jeanine smiled. “Officer…?”

“Penn, Steven Penn.”

“May I ask how old you are, Officer Penn?”

“I’m twenty years old today.”

“Perfect!” she exclaimed, clapping her hands.

“Excuse me?”

“It’s your birthday today, perfect,” she said. “Let me buy you a celebratory drink!”

“Well…” he scratched the back of his neck doubtfully. “I’m kind of on duty right now.”

“Come oooon!” she cajoled. “Just one little drink?”

***

One hour later the two were ensconced in a nearby dive enjoying their sixth round of drinks.

“Dear Stevie, can I call you Stevie?” Jeanine asked.

“Yesh,” he replied, attempting to put his arm around her shoulder but not quite making a go of it.

“Stevie, would you like to live forever?”

“Hell yeah!!!” he roared, punching the air with both fists and nearly falling off his bar stool.

“What would you say,” she said, tracing a fingertip along the nape of his neck, “If I could guarantee the immortality of your soul this very day?”

“I’d say, ‘Yes ma’am, sign me right up!’” he wriggled his head with humorous swagger.

Jeanine, hardly able to believe her own luck, took the plunge.

“Stevie, I’m going to tell you some secrets right now.”

“Shecrets? I like shecrets!”

“No one knows it except you and me. So listen to me and at the end, all you have to do is say, ‘Yes.’”

“I say yesh?”

“That’s right. I talk, then you say ‘Yes’.”

“Yesh!”

“Not yet. Just wait a little tiny bit, OK?”

“Yesh!”

Jeanine decided to go ahead anyway.

Her Royal Highness and Divine Pharoah Hatshepsut charges her most loyal servant Appollonax to find a beautiful youth for her enjoyment and companionship in The Field of Reeds. Let the youth be young and well made, in excellent health, with a slim waist and broad shoulders, full lips and long feet. Let his voice be low and soft, let his heart be light.”

Seeing that Officer Penn was about to speak, she stopped up his mouth with a judiciously timed kiss, then continued quickly.

Upon his explicit consent, the fortunate youth will be struck dead as if by lightning and then treated to the preparations as if he were indeed royalty. That is, his internal organs shall be carefully removed and preserved in beautiful jars, his body shall be treated with balsalms and drugs to maintain its perfection for Her Majesty’s pleasure. It is here expected that the candidate shall indicate his assent—”

Jeanine pointed to Officer Penn, nodding and smiling to give him his cue.

“Yesh!!!” he said and got up in an effort to jump up and down.

Just as he was falling over his own feet, a lightning flash appeared in the room and Officer Penn disappeared.

“What the—” came a scared cry from the other end of the bar.

“Is everyone all right?” the bartender called out.

“Call 911!” came another voice.

Jeanine, who’d ducked under the bar covering her head with her hands, looked up.

“Appollonax?” she whispered. “Are you there?”

Nothing. Blissful, beetle-less silence.

 

main-qimg-762487559c1f02fc7a1856a9c19bceb9-c

The Ferenhazy Jug (Part Two)

The preposterous conclusion to last week’s episode! (Read Part One here!)

 

First-State-House

 

That Saturday, Gracie knocked on Dawn’s door holding a Tupperware container in one hand. She shifted from one foot to the other and noticed that the tiger lilies next to the steps were past their best. She knocked again. Nothing. She decided to take advantage of the few spare minutes to practice some breathing exercises while she waited. Imagine your lungs filling with concentrated bliss – she heard the throaty voice of her yoga instructor. Now expel all that toxic air you’re holding inside, push it away. Gracie started to feel a bit dizzy. Inhale—think purity, sweetness, light…Now exhale deeply, strongly. Think: Out Evil! Out Mess!

Suddenly she heard a voice from over the fence.

“Hello! Can I help you with something?” A man with a beard and friendly smile.

“Oh, hello! I’m just visiting Beverly. You don’t know If she’s in or not?”

“I haven’t seen her for a couple of days and the curtains are all closed,” he said, stroking his chin. “But the car’s still there, so she hasn’t gone away I don’t think.”

“I hope she’s all right,” said Gracie, frowning

“The back door’s usually open. I bring her groceries every now and then, keep an eye on her, you know,” said the guy. He shrugged. “Worth a try, anyway.”

“Oh, thanks! I will.”

“No worries. My name’s Derrick, by the way.”

“Pleasure to meet you, Derrick. I’m Grace,” she walked over to the fence and offered her hand. She was pleased to see he blushed slightly. She walked towards the back of the house and smiled at him over her shoulder.

As Derrick predicted, the door was unlocked. Grace walked in hesitantly and found herself in the laundry room. Peanut the cat, a fluffy black creature, crouched by the washing machine staring at her and growling softly. When Grace stepped inside, Peanut raced between her legs and out the door, sprinting at top speed across the vegetable garden, under the fence and away.

“Funny thing,” muttered Grace. She wondered anxiously if she hadn’t exhaled sufficiently to rid herself of all the toxins. Maybe the cat sensed some Evil or Mess that clung to her somehow?

“Hello? Bev?” she called in an uncertain voice. “Are you there?”

She couldn’t hear any answer but something told her that the house was occupied. She ventured inside. The hallway was dark and had a strange smell, like beeswax.

Grace realized she was holding her breath. She forced herself to inhale right into her diaphragm, the way Bevan had shown her. ‘Tiger breaths’ he called them. She tiptoed along the narrow passage and pushed the door open to reveal the living room. All the curtains were drawn and the room was dark except for twelve points of light—candles on the mantlepiece above the fireplace. They’d clearly been burning for a long time and the shafts had now melted down to tumorous stubs pimpled with hardened drips.

Grace stared, initially not sure what she was looking at. As her pupils adjusted, she made out the familiar portrait on the wall above the candles. Princess Erzebet lit faintly from below but otherwise couched in darkness, had a ghastly aspect. Her pale skin seemed almost grub-like, her eyes sunken and sly, her mouth twitching with the flickers, at some horrible private joke.

Grace felt as if she were suffocating.

“Dawn! Where are you? It’s me, Grace!”

Something dropped in the room next door. A little thing, rolling and rolling like a ring.

Grace was panicking but also perversely determined to follow her fear to its farthest reaches. She remembered Dawn’s bedroom was next door, where the sound was. She made her way to another door, under which a strip of light was visible, pushed it open and walked in.

“Dawn?” Grace whispered. “Is that you?”

Again, the curtains were closed and the room was lit with candles. It was dominated by a throne created by a chair standing on a coffee table. The table was festooned with tinsel and Christmas decorations. The chair was carefully wrapped with kitchen foil. Seated on the throne was Dawn herself, dressed in bizarre grandeur. She had fashioned a gown from what looked like an old pair of drapes, a tablecloth printed with pineapple and white crepe paper. Starched doilies stuck out from her neck making her look like a frilled lizard.

Her face was equally disconcerting, like an old clown without a wig. Her eyebrows had disappeared completely. Her face was thickly coated with what looked like baby powder and her hair was pulled severely off her face with an elastic shower turban. Christmas baubles hung from her ears. Her neck, bosom and fingers gleamed with jewellery.

“Yes. I…am…Dawn,” she rasped, rather unconvincingly.

She was fondling something and Grace soon realized that it was the little bone jug she’d bought on their overseas trip.

“Um…I made you some gluten-free seed bars. They’re quite slimming,” said Grace, placing the container and the foot of the throne and then edging back closer to the door.

The figure gazed impassively at her. Grace realized she no longer had any eyelashes either.

“Wine,” said the figure.

“Eh?”

Dawn inclined her head slowly towards a cabinet in the corner of the room. Grace walked towards it and saw there was a wine glass filled with a dark liquid.

“Ah. Wine, I see.”

Grace took the glass and noticed Dawn was leaning forward looking at her hungrily.

“Here you go,” said Grace, holding it up to her.

You…drink!” Dawn hissed.

“Me?” Grace sniffed the potion. “Is there sugar in here?”

“Wine.”

“Because I can’t actually have sugar. I’m doing a detox right now, and the rules are very strict. Absolutely no sugar. No alcohol, either, come to think of it. It’s a shame though, because this smells delish. Do you have any hot water instead?”

Drink.”

“I’d really rather not…”

A piercing shriek cut through the murky room and just before losing consciousness, Grace felt a sharp pain on the side of her head.

 

red wine

 

***

Beverly had just sat down to knit a ladybird hat for her granddaughter but she couldn’t get settled. Something wasn’t quite right.

She hadn’t heard from Grace for a week, and she wasn’t answering her phone either. At first Bev put it down to forgetfulness, but, no, her gut told her there was something more to it and she always listened to her gut. That flower-show business ten years ago was a case in point: Hazel Long had got first prize for some daffodils but, for the life of her, Bev had never seen any daffodils growing in her garden. Bev had surreptitiously pulled the daffodils up out of the vase and, sure enough, there was still a rubber-band and price tag around the stems—she’d bought them from the supermarket and hadn’t even bothered to hide the fact! Typical sloppy Hazel.

Just to make sure, she called the yoga studio where Grace had classes, Bendigo it was called, and spoke to the gentleman there. He hadn’t seen her for a week either, and that was very strange since she’d been obsessive about going there every day.

And then there was Dawn, who still seemed to have disappeared off the face of the planet. Thinking about this, her gut twanged doubtfully.

“Well, if you want something done in this world, you’d better do it yourself,” she sighed and put her knitting needles back in the basket next to her armchair. “Come on, old girl, let’s get a move on.”

She got off the bus just outside Dawn’s house. She stood looking at the closed windows, the letterbox stuffed with junk mail, the overgrown lawn with dandelions bursting up all over it. Why hasn’t Derrick mown the lawn? Her gut niggled. His own lawn was looking in need of a trim too—very strange. He was a tidy man and she’d always approved of him.

She limped along the concrete path to the front door and knocked. After two minutes of waiting she walked around the back, noting the emergent weeds in the rose garden. She opened the back door and switched on the light. There was a mouldy smell coming from the washing basket, where towels had been waiting to be washed for some time, and something else, a stench…

Beverly pushed open the door into the hall. The stench bloomed into something overwhelmingly putrid, a bit like the time Gus the dog put a hedgehog under the front porch, but much worse.

“Gaww!” Bev cried. She fished in her purse for a lavender-scented handkerchief and held it up to her nose to stop herself from passing out.

With one arm held straight out in front of her, she staggered into the living room and pulled the curtains open, then opened the doors and windows to let some air in. She looked around and noticed the waxy stubs of candles gathered around the portrait. Setting her chin firmly she marched over to the fireplace and looked at the face. It seemed to be smirking at her. She wrenched the portrait off the wall.

“Out you go, queenie,” she muttered.

She walked out into the backyard and threw the painting on the compost heap.

“Queen of rot, that’s what you are.”

She took a few deep breaths and fumbled in her purse for her cellphone.

“Hello, Police? Yes. I’m at 37 Farrell Street. Come quickly. Pardon? Well the matter is there’s a terrible smell and I’m afraid something terrible has happened. What kind of emergency…? That someone’s carked it, to put it bluntly. Ambulance? No I don’t think there’ll be any need for that…How quickly can you come? Tomorrow afternoon? Yes, I appreciate you’re overworked and I just said it wasn’t an emergency, but– Hello? Hello?”

Beverly slowly put the cellphone back in her purse and looked at the house as if she were sizing up a dangerous bull.

“You’ve got to do it yourself, don’t you Bev,” she sighed.

She pulled something else out of her purse, the photograph of Frank she always kept with her, and kissed it, just in case, and put it in her cardigan pocket. Now she was ready for the second foray into the house.

This time she walked straight to the bedroom, but stopped just outside it with a failure of nerve. She heard a sound—like earrings dropping and rolling on the floor. She waited until the sound finished and listened for more, but all she could hear were her own heartbeats.

“Dawn?” she called through the door.

“Come in…Beverly,” a monotonous voice replied.

That voice chilled her to the bone, but it was too late to back out. Now or never, she muttered, pushed the door open and walked in.

Again, the room was dark, but she made out a pale round face with two dark holes—a face, somewhere up near the ceiling. The stench here was strong, almost fermented.

“Hello stranger!” she said brightly. “It’s dark as a midnight picnic in here, Dawn. Why don’t I open some curtains?”

She wrenched the drapes aside and pushed the window open.

“That’s better, isn’t it,” she chirped. “Now, what have we got here?”

Beverly inspected the scene, making an effort to disguise her disgust. Dawn was sitting on top of some sort of preposterous DIY stage. She’d clearly been playing dress-up with bits and bobs from the linen closet and smearing baby powder on her face. On either side of the stage was a slumped figure—Gracie on one side, Derrick on the other. At a glance, Bev could tell they were still breathing, still alive!

Beverly put her hands on her hips.

“What’s all this nonsense, Dawn?”

“Yes…I am…Dawn,” rasped the figure, fondling the bone jug in bejeweled fingers.

“Wine.”

“Come again?” Bev asked.

“Wine.” The Dawn figure lifted a finger pointing it across the room at a cabinet upon which sat a glass full of some red substance.

“So that’s your game is it?” Dawn muttered to herself.

“Drink,” hissed the figure.

“Now that’s not very likely, is it? Don’t you not think this has gone a bit far? What would Roger say if he could see you now?”

The head that looked back at her was curiously skull-like or…no, more like a doll, the kind with the blinking eyes and a fixed, vapid expression.

“You remember Roger, no?” Bev gawped.

The head tilted, observing Bev as a cat would observe a bird’s irregular movements.

“Right, that does it,” Bev said. She picked up the glass, took it over to the window and poured the liquid out on the garden outside. She couldn’t bear to get the floor dirty—she’d just be the one to clean it up in the end. As the liquid hit the tiger lilies, they started smoking and became grey and petrified. Beverly put the glass carefully on the windowsill.

As she turned around, she saw Dawn carefully getting down off the gaudy platform. Her movements were very careful and she had a focused expression, focused particularly on Bev. Her movements were somewhat impeded by the big heavy gown and the jug she grasped in her right hand.

Bev anticipated the assault by striding over to Dawn and took the jug from her hands.

“Let’s put an end to this nonsense once and for all!” she boomed and made as quickly as she could for the door. The creature in the gown stooped and hobbled after her as she made a break for the backyard.

As hard as she could, Bev threw the jug down on the concrete, then bashed it with a shovel that happened to be standing against the wall. The jug cracked and shattered, and Dawn screamed in agony, falling down on the backsteps and hitting her head on the corner of a step so that a thin trickle of blood ran down her pasty white face. Bev ignored her, kept smashing the thing, then she collected all the pieces and took it over to the compost heap, where she smushed it into the rancid grass clippings and coffee grounds.

“Good riddance!” she said.

A man in a suit came running round the back, then looked at the woman moaning on the ground.

“What’s going on here? Why did you hurt this woman?”

“I didn’t. She fell.” Bev did not release her tight grip on the shovel.

“She…hurt…me,” Dawn rasped pathetically.

“I’m calling the cops,” the man declared, glaring at Bev.

“Good luck with that.” Bev rolled her eyes. “Listen, can you keep an eye on her? I need to go inside to check…”

“Don’t you move!” the man pointed his phone at her.

Bev, tired from her exertions, sat down on a plastic chair to wait. She looked at Dawn, who was currently coolly assessing the scene. I don’t trust her as far as I can kick her, thought Bev. The man was watching Bev, but his eyes were distracted by something behind her. Bev turned and saw that the compost heap was smoking, wisps of black smoke curling up like thin ribbons. Bev moved away and the man went to stop her, but at that moment Dawn rushed towards the compost heap and climbed up on it.

“My lady, my lady!” she keened, holding the portrait of Erzebet in both hands, then putting her ear up against it and nodded, as if listening to something. The compost heap burst into flames and the man, increasingly baffled, trotted over.

“Get off there now. You’re suffering from shock, come off down it.”

Bev took the opportunity to go back into the house. As she entered the hallway, she heard a frightened yell.

“Oh for God’s sake,” she muttered, and stomped out again to see Dawn dragging the limp figure of the man up onto the flaming vegetable heap. She grabbed the shovel, knocked Dawn on the head hard enough to stun her, then pulled the man off, dragging him far enough away that he wouldn’t catch fire, with any luck.

“Poor sap,” Bev shook her head. “Stay there and don’t get into any more mischief.”

 

 

compost

***

POLICE REPORT

 

Officers Yin and Douglas arrived at 37 Farrell Street, Wilmington at 4.23 pm on Wednesday 8th. Paramedics arrived at the scene at 4.25pm.

There was a large, illegal rubbish fire out the back, smoking and releasing a very strong odour.

Lying unconscious on the grass was a 37-year-old male named Guy Bradley, a real-estate broker. He appeared to be in a coma. Seated next to him on the ground was 68-year-old female Beverly Graham, who had third-degree burns on her hands and appeared to be delirious, laughing and repeating, ‘It’s all over now!’

In the residence we found two more victims, 64-year-old Grace Thurlow and 50-year-old Derrick Bonham, both of whom were known to the woman Graham. They were both unconscious, in a similar state to Bradley. All four were taken to Queen Alexandria Hospital.

A large number of rings were recovered in the master bedroom of the house, where Thurlow and Bonham were found. As of today we are not aware of their provenance. We are making efforts to trace their origins but can so far confirm that no one in the Wilmington area has reported the rings missing.

The owner of the house, one Dawn Croxley was not found. Under interrogation, Graham has admitted that she knows Croxley well but hadn’t seen her for two weeks. Graham has been detained for further questioning.

Note: another ring was found in the ashes of the rubbish fire, along with bone shards.

 

4714776900000578-5154893-Even_thought_the_couple_lost_most_of_their_belongings_they_stumb-a-87_1512667128640

The Ferenhazy Jug

 

creepy girl

“Oh Bev? I just want to pop in here for a moment.”

“You go ahead Dawn. My feet are killing me. I’ll wait for you at that coffee shop.”

“Righto.”

Dawn bustled into the dark little shop on whose windows were painted ‘Antikvarium.’ Beverly walked purposefully across the street to the modern looking place with big windows, golden lampshades and a blackboard outside advertising ‘coffee’, ‘chimney cake,’ and ‘veal stew’, in English.

Beverly didn’t know what chimney cake was but it sounded a damn sight better than poking about in a glorified dustbin for hours at a time.

Dawn seemed to have an endless appetite for that sort of thing – it was her third junkshop in one morning. You thought you knew a person after being friends for twenty years, but travelling in Europe had brought out a different side of Bev. “Yes, it’s brought out the batty all right,” she muttered.

Maybe it was losing Roger that did it. Well she herself had gone a bit off when Frank passed–polishing furniture all night, knitting suits for the cat, filling the front garden with rocks painted like hedgehogs “for kiddies to look at on their walk home” (she lived next to a primary school). Temporary derangement was to be expected. She sighed philosophically.

When they’d all decided to ‘do Europe’ (with money from Roger’s will, Gracie’s lotto winnings and Bev’s own savings) she’d anticipated something gentler and less exhausting. Instead, at the age of 69, she had discovered that Europe wasn’t her cup of tea at all. Not even London, well especially not London to tell you the truth.

“Good for you, Mum, going out and seeing the world! You deserve to have a bit of fun after all your hard work!”

Her daughter’s emails left her gloomier than ever. How could she tell Fenella the truth? She wished she had someone to share her disappointment with. Gracie was too much into her ‘positive thinking’ yoga fad and Dawn had lost her marbles about the place. Frank would’ve listened. In fact, he would’ve outdone her, complaints-wise.

What would he have made of the gobbledegook languages they used in these parts? The bumpy little cobblestones? They’ll trip you up and break your neck if you aren’t careful. The grim old buildings and scowling statues in the dark winter afternoons? Christ Bev, all this and the 3 o’clock sunsets make you feel like topping yourself. Then there was the substance they called ‘cream’ but was nothing of the sort. I’m not putting baby sick in my tea. And the vegetables! Terrible. Shrivelled, anemic little things you felt sorry for. I’d rather have one of your juicy beefsteak tomatoes any day, my dear. And the pale young people who dressed like television actors stalked about sighing and visibly annoyed by old ladies with foot trouble.

“Frankie, you’re better off,” she sighed under her breath.

A nice young man in a white apron asked politely if she was ready to odour yet.

“Yes, thank you, I will odour,” she suppressed a smile. “I’ll have one of these chimney cakes and coffee.”

“Certainly. Would you like any liqueur in your coffee?”

“Pardon?”

“We have, for example, Kahlua, rum, kirsch…”

“Oh! Well. Perhaps just a dash of rum please.” The daring of ordering alcohol before noon gave her a mild sense of exhilaration, the biggest thrill she’d had in about five years.

“Are you sure, madame, that you would not like two dashes?” The man asked conspiratorially.

“Why not? At my age, it’s time to live a little, wouldn’t you say?”

He winked at her. He really wasn’t bad looking, in a Gerard Depardieu way (before he’d gone to the dogs, obviously). She beamed back and thought that Europe had its good points after all.

***

antikvarium

‘Antikvarium’. The word gave Dawn a thrill of pleasure. It reminded her of a hardcover picture book she was given when she was eight years old, The Old Curiosity Shop. That was even before she knew it was a Dickens. The old world! With its kings and mad queens, dungeons, rooks, ravens, harpsichords, cathedrals and tiny shops full of charming knick-knacks. It all brought her back to the days when she’d lie on the floor of her bedroom reading and wondering what object she would purchase, if she were lucky enough to visit one of these places.

“Good morning,” said a spry lady of about Dawn’s own age. Her head was not much higher than the counter, giving the impression that it was one of the objects for sale. Her perm and makeup were very carefully done, so it might really have been the head of an elderly doll.

“Good morning,” Dawn smiled, transmitting through her false teeth the vast happiness she felt at being here.

“Can I help you?” The woman emerged from behind the counter, revealing that the body attached to the head was impeccably dressed in a tailored suit. Dawn suddenly felt rather shy.

“Thank you, I…I’m just looking.”

“And where are you from?” The shop lady chirped.

“Takapuna, New Zealand.”

The lady clapped her hands together in delight. “New Zealand! How beautiful!”

“Oh, thank you. Well I rather like it here actually. So much history.”

“Oh yes,” the shop lady nodded. “As you can see, we have history all around us,” she laughed, gesturing to the jumbled piles of crockery, figurines, war memorabilia, faded postcards, the detritus of long-gone lives.

“I imagine you are wanting a nice souvenir, yes?”

“Well, yes. I’d like something to remind me of my wonderful visit.” She didn’t ordinarily share her feelings but she instinctively felt she could confide in this woman. Dawn said “Do you know, I feel so at home here? Almost as if I’ve been here before!”

The shop lady laughed. “Really? How nice! Perhaps you have?” She smiled and the expression seemed rather unnatural. She would have said ghastly, but that wouldn’t be nice. “Well, in that case we must find something really special. Please, look around and I will bring you some things from the back – the premium collection.

“Oh, I don’t have a big budget,” stammered Dawn, uncomfortably aware of how much she’d already spent on the lace doily and butterfly tea set for Joanie.

“Don’t worry,” the lady answered, “These are precious but not expensive. I keep them for customers who will appreciate curiosities.”

Curiosities. How strange, thought Dawn, that she should have used exactly that word. She felt a sudden dip in her stomach, like being in an elevator that stops too fast, as if she’d been picked up by a large hand, most likely the hand of Fate. It had been preordained that she would come in here! That’s why she’d been drawn to the artistic window design…

Happily she gazed at a collection of cake plates and delicate tea cups shaped like upside-down lilies-of-the-valley. She imagined holding a special tea party for the church ladies on a Saturday afternoon in Takapuna, serving asparagus rolls and lamingtons. She could use that pretty bassoon-shaped vase to hold a bunch of her home-grown tiger lilies.

“And here we are,” said the shop lady, who always sounded as if she had a smile in her voice.  “Let’s see what we have here, if you would be so kind as to…”

Dawn anticipated the request, clearing a space for the woman to set down a large cardboard box. With be-jewelled and carefully manicured fingers, the lady pulled up the flaps to reveal what was inside.

“It’s like Christmas, isn’t it?” Dawn gave a little laugh.

“Yes, like Christmas, as you say,” the woman smiled that strange smile.

Dawn stood on tippytoes and peered into the box. The corners and handles of various items gleamed suggestively at her from where they lay nestled in tissue paper.

The lady extracted a saucer and presented it for Dawn’s inspection.

“Exquisite!”

“Let me explain you about each one,” she said, seeming more excited than Dawn.

“This, you see, is a Szenzin design, especially ordered by Queen Victoria. More than one was not produced because there were competitors and in the end she decided not to choose it. The teacup, sugarbowl and teapot have all been lost – this is the last surviving piece. It is whimsical, don’t you think?”

“Yes, yes. I do like the bunnies and bluebells. Lovely,” breathed Dawn. “So Queen Victoria herself might have held this in her hand,” she mused.

“If history had gone differently…And next, we have this: a memorial spoon for the birth of Prince Henry of Spain, who died at the age of three in 1788.”

“Oh, look! It’s not tarnished at all for something so old.”

“Yes, it has hardly ever been taken out of its case. As you see, we take good care of these particular things.”

A handle shaped like a bent elbow caught Dawn’s eye. She pointed.

“And what is this?”

The lady looked at her sharply. “This? This is a little milk jug. Well it is not of the highest workmanship, but…”

“Can you show it to me?”

After a barely perceptible pause, the lady said, “Yes of course.” Gingerly, she lifted it out of the paper and held it up to the low-hanging lamp above the counter, careful to keep the tissue between its base and her fingers.

It was a little bigger than a perfume bottle, translucent white with depressions etched in its surface.

“What a daggy thing!” Said Dawn. “It looks like scrimshaw or something, with the little carvings on the handle. Hang it all, I don’t have my glasses or I could make the scene out. And what is it made of? Ivory?”

“Bone. This is known as the Ferenhazy jug. It belonged to Empress Elszebet Ferenhazy, who lived in the 1600s in the palace over the river. There are many stories about her, but you know this is true of any powerful woman. They should not be believed.”

“Oh yes, some things never change do they? People don’t like being bossed about by a skirt. Reminds them of their childhood.”

“Yes.”

“So this Queen used this on her Weetbix?”

The lady looked puzzled.

“Her cereal?”

“Excuse me?”

“The queen put milk in this?”

“Yes, yes. It was hers.”

“Funny,” said Dawn, “Don’t get me wrong, I like it, but it doesn’t seem fancy enough somehow for a queen.”

“Yes,” nodded the lady, “This is the, if you like, embarrassment of the piece. No one knows its provenance.”

“Its which?”

“Who made it, where it is from. But it is known without a doubt that it was highly cherished by her ladyship. There is even a painting–one moment, I will find a print for you.” She ducked down to check shelves under the counter.

Dawn picked up the jug and felt its surprising heft. She ran her fingertips over the corrugations made by the carving and felt a sudden overwhelming desire to own it. Imagine, she thought, her, little old Dawn from Takapuna, pouring fresh farm milk out of a jug that had been the prized property of a queen from the 1600s! Roger wouldn’t have cared for it, but, well…maybe it was time to let her hair down a little, do the things she liked to do. She set her jaw in the way she did when she’d made up her mind.

The lady emerged, her blonde hair slightly disordered, and handed Dawn a large roll of glossy paper, a little yellowed with age and ragged at the edges. But when she unrolled it she saw a poster that had retained the richness of color.

In front of a dark background simpered a small young woman, really just a child. Her fair hair was pulled back severely to show a widow’s peak, the rest of it was hidden underneath a black velvet cap to which was attached a silver pin in the shape of an arrow. Her face was very pale, her eyes dark, deep-set and intense, and her mouth twisted a little in its smile. She wore a high-necked white collar constructed in a series of stiff horizontal pleats, the fabric was studded with gleaming pearls. Jutting out from either side of the collar, like skeletal wings, were ruffs of white lace. Her jacket was dark green and black satin, and in contrast the woman’s small hands seemed luminous in their pallor. In one hand, between thumb and forefinger, she held the stem of a red rose. In the other, cupped in her palm, she cradled the bone jug.

“There it is!” Dawn breathed. “Well I’ll be jiggered!” She stared for a while in shock. It was the very thing. All those centuries ago, that elegant aristocrat had held the jug just as Dawn herself was holding it now.

For the second time since she had set foot in the shop, she felt that odd internal thump, the falling-into-place of Fate. Clearly, she had no choice—it was meant to be hers.

Now came the awkward part. She didn’t have much cash left. They were heading back to New Zealand tomorrow and she’d need enough for the taxi and extra-luggage charges.

“Er, how much would it be?” Dawn asked, her mouth becoming dry with anxiety.

“Well, as you know this is a very prestigious item…” began the lady.

Here we go! Dawn thought crestfallen, well whatever it is, it doesn’t matter. Roger left me that little windfall and I can pay with plastic if it comes to that.

“We have always said that we would only sell this piece to the customer who recognized its value. And when such a customer appeared, we would entrust it to him—or her—without asking for payment. And I think–”

Dawn could feel tears of disappointment burn in the backs of her eyes.

“I think that that customer is you. The jug is yours.”

“Eh? You mean for free?”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“Gosh, that’s generous. Very generous!”

“And, of course, the poster would go with it.”

“My goodness. Well, what a lovely gesture. Thank you very much!”

“You are most welcome my dear. And did you see anything else you liked?”

“Oh well yes, I’m rather fond of a flower vase. It’s shaped like a musical instrument. A clarinet or buboe or a bassoon or something.”

“Ah, the bassoon vase yes.”

Dawn forked over the cash and watched the lady put everything carefully into boxes and an elegant black-and-gold carry bag.

I can’t wait to show the girls, she thought. How lucky I was to see this place!

***

jug

One month later Bev and Gracie were seated at a little cafeteria called The Cowpoke Creamer on the main street of Takapuna.

“Hello ladies, are you ready to order?” asked a bright young waitress.

“Do you want a coffee Gracie?”

“Oh no, I don’t drink coffee. It strains our nervous systems. And nothing with dairy, either, it makes me sluggish. Tell me, do you have any tea containing parti-colored hyacinth?”

The waitress frowned anxiously.

“Hot water for her,” said Bev, “And a cappuccino for me. Do you put rum in it at all?”

“Er, no sorry we’re not licensed to serve alcohol here.”

“Oh well. Thank you anyway,” Bev nodded and the waitress left.

“You really should pay more attention to your diet Beverly. Coffee with milk is not good for you. Do you know what they’re feeding the cows nowadays?”

“Grass, the same as they were feeding them six months ago before you met Mr Hotpants Yoga instructor.”

Gracie pursed her lips.

“How’s that going anyway?”  Bev asked.

Gracie unpursed her lips and smiled. “Wonderful! I’ve found a new lease on life. Who knew that at sixty four I’d be more sexually active than I was in my youth?”

“So this Bevan, what’s his secret? Does he take Viagra or something?”

“Certainly not! He would rather die than take any unnatural supplements. He has developed his unusual prowess through the practice of breathing exercises and manipulation of the peritoneum.”

“What’s that? No, actually don’t tell me.”

“You should try it Bev.”

“Yoga or sex?”

“Either one – something to get the blood going, make you feel like a girl again. Bring out your sensual side.”

“I fear that if my old carcass brought out its sensual side there would be complaints filed at the local Police station. Don’t get me wrong though Gracie, I’m pleased for you. You’ve got the figure to pull it off and you look happy. If Yogaman is bringing a little sunshine into your life, then all praise to him. No, it’s not you I’m worried about, it’s Dawn.”

“Dawn? What’s happened?”

“That blimmin’ jug of hers.”

“Oh, that thing.” Grace sighed. “Is she still going on about it?”

“She’s obsessed. Oh, last week every sentence was the Ferenhazy jug this, the Ferenhazy jug that and talking about getting together for a tea party. Well, she had her tea party this Sunday and I agreed to go thinking it might be a nice chance for a catch up with everyone. I think you had your yoga retreat so you couldn’t go.”

“Yes. It was fantastic, really enlightening.”

“Good, good. Well anyhow, I went early and lo and behold she’d put that ghastly poster up of the girl with the beady rat eyes.”

“Queen Erszebet.”

“Yes, well it gives me the willies at the best of times, but do you know what that daft Dawn had done? She’d set it up on the mantelpiece with candles all around it and little vases of flowers. It reminded me of an altar or some such.

“‘You can’t do that Dawn!’ I said, I mean, it shook me that much I had to cross myself.

“ ‘Why not?’ she says.

“ ‘It looks like you’re making her into an idol,’ I say.

“‘Erszebet doesn’t sing,’ she goes.

“‘For crying out loud, Dawn,’ I said, ‘I’m not talking about American Idol, I’m talking about you treating this picture like it was a holy relic. For one thing it’s blasphemous, and for another, the girls will think you’ve gone senile.’  So of course she sulked.’

Gracie coughed. “Well, you can be a bit blunt Bev.”

“Sometimes a blunt instrument is called for.”

“Did she take the poster down?”

“No, she dug her heels in. But I got her to move the flowers and candles at any rate.”

“Well, is that all? It seems harmless enough.”

“No that’s not all. I haven’t even got to the main thing yet. When we were setting up in the kitchen, I was doing the cucumber sandwiches and Dawn was making the tea blithering on about how thrilling it all was and wouldn’t they love it, when all of a sudden she gave a scream.

“‘Where is it? I’ve got the broom!’ I said, because you know Frank and I had a mouse problem for years and instinct kicked in. I turned around and saw Dawn had spilled the milk and was white as a sheet.

“’Where’s the mouse?’ I said.

“‘It went out there,’ said Dawn, pointing to the hallway so I went racing out after it but couldn’t see a thing. Well, when I came back, Dawn was pouring milk into a different jug, a glass one, and making a pig’s ear of it too, sloshing it all over the place.

“‘What are you doing Dawn? Aren’t you going to use the special jug? It’s right over here.’

“‘No!’ she yelled, just like that. ‘No!’

“‘Allright,’ I said, ‘Keep your pants on. It’s just a mouse. We’ll keep quiet about it and no one will know. Here, let me do that, you’re spilling it everywhere.’

“So she let me take over with the pouring, and she went over to the sink, where the jug was and started rinsing it.

“‘So you’re not going to use the special jug?’ I asked.

“‘Oh no,’ she says all airily, ‘I decided I’ll make it a gallery item instead. I don’t want to damage it. I mean, it’s an antique! I don’t know what I was thinking, really. What an idea! I’ll just take it upstairs and polish it up. Then I think we’ll set it on the mantelpiece next to Erszebet.’

“’Righto,’ I said, and she hurried out, sort of hunching forward with her back to me. I thought to myself, ‘Gallery item’! This is it; stress has finally tipped her over the edge. She’s gone ahead and had that nervous breakdown Frank always said she due for.

“Well, Dawn took her time upstairs and I’d finished setting up the sandwiches and cakes so I thought I’d make a start in on the dishes. And wouldn’t you know it but at the bottom of the sink was a pool of blood.”

“What? Are you sure?”

“I’ve done my fair share of butchering on the farm and I know blood when I see it.”

“Maybe she’d been defrosting a chicken or something? Or cut herself with the fright?”

“This wasn’t the pale, watery nonsense you get when you defrost a chicken. And when you nick your finger you don’t get a half-cup’s worth of thick red goop.”

“What did you do?”

“Well, I ran the tap until it went away, washed the sink out with disinfectant and did the dishes like I planned. And when I threw away the paper towels I used to clean up, I saw that there was the dishcloth, covered with blood. So that made me think Dawn had tried to clean it up herself and didn’t mention it to me. After a few more minutes she came down dressed in new clothes, with the jug in hand.”

“Did you ask her about it?”

“No. And she didn’t bring it up either. In fact she didn’t speak to me again at the party or since. I don’t like it Gracie. Something funny’s going on.”

Gracie nodded, flummoxed. “What should we do?”

“Well, seeing as I’m on the outer with her, I thought maybe you could visit, see if you can get any info. Maybe she’ll talk to you; you’ve always had a gentler way with people.”

Gracie nodded. “OK, I’ll try.”

 

To be continued…

Desdemona Deserves to Die

OTHELLO:  Think on thy sins.

DESDEMONA:  They are loves I bear to you.

OTHELLO: Ay, and for that thou diest.

 

Thanks to generous friends who waited in line for hours in the morning last Wednesday, I had the chance to see Othello at Shakespeare in the Park. It was a gorgeous spectacle on an enchanted evening—birds flitting through the stage arches, beautiful actors brilliantly costumed, expert lighting energizing the illusion. Suddenly, the sun was no longer going down in Central Park but in Venice, and the moon rising in Cyprus. The whole audience was spellbound.

 

33990108_10216546769931103_6652024921180340224_n
Heather Lind as Desdemona, Alison Wright as Emilia

But by the end, waking from the spell, I was disturbed—more than I should have been. The final scene did not inspire horror and pity, as Aristotle says tragedy should, but rage. I’d just watched an idiot thug slaughter his innocent wife for no reason! My first thought was to march up onto the stage and kick him in the head. But I knew that wasn’t how I was supposed to feel. Othello is the title character; Iago is supposed to be the villain; after the murder Othello is even allowed a dignified speech in which he says, “nought I did in hate, but all in honor”.

“What kind of ‘honor’ is it to murder someone even if they have been unfaithful?” I fumed. “Shakespeare’s supposed to be a decent playwright! How could he have made such a gross miscalculation in making this sick butcher a tragic figure?” But then that word “honor” reverberated in my head and I realized, with a sinking feeling, that Shakespeare hadn’t made a mistake. According to the play’s internal logic, and the Bible, and the stinking 16th-century, Desdemona is guilty.

At the very beginning of the play, Roderigo and Iago wake Brabantio up to alert him to a secret marriage between his daughter and the Moor Othello: “Your daughter, if you have not given her leave…hath made a gross revolt”. This, according to Christian patriarchal tradition, is strict fact: it is the father’s sacred prerogative to approve his daughter’s marriage (Corinthians 7: 36-37), and Desdemona has done wrong.

 

othello
The Duke is too liberal

 

Brought before the Duke to account for his actions, Othello answers the charge says that he did not trick Desdemona but persuaded her fair and square—she loved him of her own free will and was attracted to him for himself. She was at least ‘half the wooer’ — initiating the courtship by expressing interest in his stories and by dropping a hint as broad as an oil tanker:

                                                     she thank’d me,

And bade me, if I had a friend that loved her,

I should but teach him how to tell my story.

And that would woo her.

 

The rest of the elopement has already been described to Brabantio. It does not show Desdemona in a particularly honorable light. Because Roderigo and Iago have evil designs, and because she herself later seems so fair and obedient to Othello, it seems as if they are slandering her, but the story is true:

 

                                              Your fair daughter,

At this odd-even and dull watch o’ the night,

Transported, with no worse nor better guard

But with a knave of common hire, a gondolier,

To the gross clasps of a lascivious Moor—

 

Brabantio was ignorant of the courtship and the marriage—the whole business was done in secrecy–without his knowledge and without his consent. The Duke, a figure of authority and justice, knows that Othello is a good general and necessary for the state’s security, so he advises Brabantio to make the best of it and to forgive the pair. Yet Brabantio is unable to forgive Desdemona’s ‘treason of the blood’, and regards her as essentially dead to him.

 

BRABANTIO:  My daughter! O, my daughter!

DUKE OF VENICE Senator:  Dead?

BRABANTIO:  Ay, to me;

 

A child’s duty to a parent is part of a Christian’s duty to God; “Honor thy father and mother (Ephesians 6:2) is one of the Ten Commandments. This is not the first time Shakespeare has compared the breaking of a sacred tie of duty to spiritual death.  Robert B. Bennet notes:

 

Speaking of mortal sin, Aquinas says that turning away from God is a death of the soul (ST 1a2ae 72.5). Shakespeare employs this mode of thinking explicitly in The Merchant of Venice within the context of broken bonds. When Launcelot Gobbo at the “fiend’s” prompting severs his servant-master bond with Shylock, he immediately thereafter, in jest, declares to his blind father that “Master Launcelot…is indeed deceas’d” (2.2.60-64). The context gives more truth to the supposed buffoonery than Launcelot intends. Later Bassanio, in accepting Portia’s ring, vows “when this ring, / Parts from this finger…/O then be bold to say Bassanio’s dead”) 3.2.183-85), a pledge realized not in physical death but in broken vow a few scenes later.

(Romance and Reformation: The Erasmian Spirit of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure by Robert B. Bennett)

 

If she can so easily break a familial tie and disregard the one task a well-bred woman was supposed to fulfil (ie obedience to her male guardian), how can she be trusted at all? Brabantio’s final words to Othello are prophetic:

 

Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see:
She has deceived her father, and may thee.

 
virtuousbawd

 

In the final act, looking on Desdemona’s corpse, Gratiano exclaims:

 

Poor Desdemona! I am glad thy father’s dead:

Thy match was mortal to him, and pure grief

Shore his old thread in twain

 

So by secretly eloping with her own choice of husband, Desdemona has not only deceived and disobeyed her father, she has actually killed him! This is a deadly sin (Exodus 20:13). Her final words suggest she finally realizes this and accepts her execution as a just penalty.

 

DESDEMONA: A guiltless death I die.

EMILIA: O, who hath done this deed?

DESDEMONA: Nobody; I myself. Farewell Commend me to my kind lord: O, farewell!

Dies

 

After Othello revealed his hatred by slapping her and calling her a whore, effectively breaking their bond, Desdemona asked Emilia to “lay on my bed my wedding sheets”. Later on, when undressing she adds “If I do die before thee prithee, shroud me/In one of those same sheets.”. This is an admission that by marrying according to her own will and not her father’s blessing, she dishonored and killed him (a mortal sin) and dug her own grave: appropriately, her bridal sheet is the same as her winding sheet. This all confirms Iago’s cynical but accurate observation that their marriage had “a violent commencement, and thou shalt see an answerable sequestration”.

This transgression was not punished by the state, as would have been appropriate, but by Othello, which adds an even darker aspect to the statement “I have done the state some service”.

Love making
Fornicators. They probably eloped.

 

Othello and Puritanism

In 1604 Othello was (probably) performed for the first time. In the same year, the newly crowned James I commissioned an ambitious new version of the Bible (the King James Version) and published Constitutions and Canons Ecclesiastical, perhaps the most important item of ecclesiastical law in the history of the Anglican Church. Both of these acts were partly in response to pressure from Puritans who wielded a strong influence over the Parliament.

In relation to marriage, canon LXII (under “Ministers Ordination and Function”) laid out laws designed to prevent clandestine marriage. Presumably this was at least partly in order to prevent Catholic weddings, which were illegal at the time:

 

“[N]o minister should marry any couple which has not published the Banns of Matrimony for three Sundays beforehand. The minister should only marry them between the hours of 8-12 at day in a church or chapel and not without the consent of parents (if one of them is under the age of 21).”

 

Puritanical influence could also be felt in a return to a more literal interpretation of scripture and Biblical notions:

 

“While the punishment for fornication in Shakespeare’s England was modest (the wearing of a penitential garment for several days or the payment of a fine), there was existing Puritanical sentiment for more stringent measures. Bishop Latimer had urged the young King Edward, in a sermon in 1550, to enact the death penalty for adultery: “There would not be then so much adultery, whoredom, and lechery in England.” Stanislav Andreski notes how John Calvin “narrow[ed] sexual freedom—not so much by introducing new restrictions as by a much stricter enforcement of the old prohibitions of fornication and adultery”. The “precise” Angelo [in Measure for Measure], who vigorously pursues enforcement of an old, neglected law, stands for an entire movement of religious agitators in England who had provoked, among other things, Richard Hooker’s exhaustive defence of Anglican thought on law, The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. In part at least the Puritan intent was to revivify the word of scripture by instituting, to the letter, its ancient laws.”

p. 73 Romance and Reformation: The Erasmian Spirit of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure by Robert B. Bennett