Birds of Italy: pt 3 the Beautiful Couple

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Martha Hubbard lives on an island in the North Baltic. A place of strange gods, mysteries, tragedies and wonder, it provides the perfect bed-rock for a writer of dark fantasy. Previously she has been a teacher, cook, stage manager & dramaturge ,  a parking lot company book-keeper and a community development worker.  Her stories have appeared in the Innsmouth Free Press’ anthologies, Historical Lovecraft, Candle in the Attic Window and Future Lovecraft. Last year she served on the jury for the International SFF Translation Awards and hopes to do so again.

 

The Beautiful Couple

He’s old, mostly deaf, obviously frail, some movements are palsied, uncertain, maybe Alzheimer’s – maybe a stroke. His dominant colour is grey; his skin, eyes, beard, skull, stray hairs pasted across bone like wandering brackish streams, all ash-coloured. Even his clothes, clearly, once well made and considered, have a too often washed, greyed-out aura. He’s not an appetising prospect – at all.
She? His consort is triangular shaped. A small orderly head with a child’s bowl haircut sits precariously atop an expanding mountain of flesh pressing down on swollen legs and misshapen feet. How they must hurt her. What kind of affliction causes a body to blow up like an over-filed sausage casing, while leaving the head so tiny, the bones of her face, fine like a small bird’s, sharp under her skin.
And yet, here’s a surprise. She loves him. See how she strokes his hand as she puts a morsel of her scallopine on his plate; pours a little red wine into his glass and waits for him to add water – just so.
… And he, her. See how he offers his arm as they enter the dining room. Whatever the ravages of age and disease have done to his mind, the memory of courtesy remains entrenched.
Her shining eyes see him as he was when they were young and first agreed to share their lives. This is a couple who will not out-live each other by more than a few anguished months.
What are they, cracked and broken shadows of a former life, doing in this funny little hotel, in the least glamorous of East Tigulio’s vacation playgrounds? For that matter, what are any of the lonely, unaccompanied, elderly women doing in this place?
North and south of here, the rich have built their playgrounds. Sestri Levante, Camogli, Porto Fino, Rapallo, all lined with boulevards of fine venerable palms, grand mansion-hotels and expensive restaurants with menus in four languages: Italian, English, French and Russian. The names slip off the tongue like exotic flavours served up in the gelato parlours in the parks. What extraordinary benefit does Chiavari, this workmanlike city at the mouth of the River Entola, offer the old, unattractive, infirm and frightened?
Ah, but have you never heard of the Madonna del Orto? Our Lady of the Vegetable Garden is the patron saint of Chiavari, but not the guardian of allotment growers as her name suggests.
After prayers to a statue of the Virgin in the back garden of a local villa miraculously – Isn’t it always so in Italy? – saved the town of Chiavari from a raging pestilence, a painting of this event was commissioned. The painting was hung in a small chapel nearby and the wonder working powers transferred themselves inside.
Through the years, and despite the best efforts of the Vatican to discredit her, the Holy Mother of the Garden blessed more and more seekers with renewed health and longer life, saving Chiavari from plague again in 1528. Finally in 1998, the old Polack himself, turned up in the Popemobile, to bless the painting and the enormous cathedral now housing it. This couple also, is here, hoping for a miracle.
It’s October, the most beautiful time of year in Italy, in my opinion. Perhaps because the oppressive heat of summer has abated, it’s also the busiest time for the Orto Madonna. Anyone reading this who is sick or old knows how difficult it is to travel when the blazing sun turns every space into an oven.
Today, like all others this week, is painfully beautiful. It’s the last day of our couple’s stay in Chiavari. After Mass, they move slowly, deliberately out of the church. He stops on the rotunda, gazing around. I suspect he knows he’ll never see this vista again.
“Let’s sit in the park for a bit. We can feed the birds. See, I brought some bread from breakfast,” he says, reaching into his jacket pocket. “We have time before lunch.”
“Of course,” she says, patting his hand.
So they sit in the golden light of an autumn morning. The birds are happy for their offering and clatter around, respectfully enjoying the crumbs he throws to them. When all the bread has been consumed, the couple rise and walk slowly back to the hotel.
“I’m too tired to go down for lunch today. I think, I’ll just sleep for awhile,” he tells her, stretching out on their bed and closing his eyes.
She understands, It’s time. The miracle they hoped for here, will not happen. Watching him sleep, his chest barely rising and falling with each ragged breath, she knows what to do.
Taking her pillow, she covers his face. He’s old and weak. It doesn’t take very long. The rasping, anguished breaths cease. Removing the pillow from his now peaceful face, she watches his soul rise up, out of his lifeless body and fly out the window, like a bird set free.
She opens s drawer from the table on her side of the bed. Removing a bottle, she shakes it … so many colours. Will it be enough? It must be. From the garderobe she brings out an open bottle of red wine and a single glass. One by one, then more quickly, she washes the pills down with the wine. Gazing up at the picture of the Madonna over their bed, she makes the sign of the cross before speaking to her God, “Give us this day our daily bread …and forgive my transgressions, as I have forgiven others.”
When all the pills have been consumed, the wine drunk, she stretches out beside her lover of forty years, fitting her body close against his. She rests her arm across his now motionless chest and sinks into her final sleep. Outside the birds have stopped singing.

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