Birds of Italy

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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.


Ghost Birds

Many people like, even love, old cities. Visions of narrow cobblestone streets, twisted, tortured faces grinning above ancient lintels, or crumbling statues dozing in hidden courtyards fill their dreams with reflections of worlds and peoples long vanished. Not I. Give me a modern metropolis, any day – like Jyväskylä, all steel, glass and polished stone. Nothing sticks to those slick frontages. People come here, go about their business, and leave, taking themselves with them.

Old cities? They’re an entirely different kettle of metaphorical ingredients. Take Rome for example; my first time there I was with my fiancé Christina. On our last night we made a wish, kissed each other, then threw the coin. We held hands watching it tumble, flashing in the Roman light before splashing into the Fontana di Trevi. How trite, you think. But we were young and in love, so why not.

What did we wish? ‘Someday when we’re old, let us come back here together.’ I know I’m not supposed to tell. Bad luck – our wish won’t come true. But it can’t come true anymore. That’s why I’m here in Rome writing this. You see I lost her, lost Christina, that is.

The next day, vacation over, we returned to Finland. Years passed. We got married; had the requisite number of children. I had a good job; she had a job. The children grew up, finished their education, moved away, as children do.

One day I looked around and she was gone. I had no idea where she’d gone, or why or even when. All I know, I was sitting in the living room one evening after dinner, reading my paper, as I always did, when I noticed it was terribly quiet. The room felt unnaturally empty.

“Christina,”  I called. “ Come in here please. I need you.” There was no response. “Christina! Stop fooling around. Come here now. I need you.” She didn’t come. She was gone.

So now I’m here in Rome, alone. Except that I’m not alone. Look at them. Those damn birds won’t leave me. They squawk and rage, flapping around my head whenever I go near the Fontana. I had thought, maybe… if I waited near the fountain … she would remember and join me – it’s our anniversary tonight. But all I get are these damn screaming birds,.

“Chose me! Claim me! Get me outta here,” they beg.

I’ve been here a week. Loitering in nearby cafés, hoping to catch a glimpse of my lost love. Every time I get within 5 meters of the fountains edge, the birds descend on me. They don’t seem to be bothering anyone else. Actually, I don’t think anyone else can see them. Young couples, innocent and trusting come up to the fountain rim, watch the water burbling over the statues, make their wish and wander off for an aperitif, or whatever it is that lovers drink these days.

Tonight is my last chance. Drawing on reserves of legendary Finnish courage, I didn’t know I possessed, I walk slowly, steadily through the mêlée of beseeching fowl towards the pool around the statuary.

It’s late. No one is around. Even the carabinieri seem to have gone to sleep. It’s taken me all week to figure out what the deal is with these birds. Poor desperate creatures; they are abandoned wishes, wishes that people made and forgot, or didn’t bother to come back to claim. Now they are stuck here, in an ether-limbo around the fountain, trying to find a claimer who will take them out of their misery.

I guess I’m not the first person to return here hoping to find the lost other half of a wish. The crying birds see me as a ticket to escape. They are determined I will not leave without releasing at least one of them. With gritted teeth, shielding my eyes from an assault only I can see, I reach the fountain and sit carefully on the edge. During the day you’re not allowed to sit here. At this hour there’re no guardians to move me along. Stubbornly, a maelstrom of wings and feathers flapping around my head, I remain in my place until the bells begin striking midnight. Heartsick, I know for certain, she won’t come.

Time to give up and go back to my hotel – to get away from these awful birds.  I feel sorry for them, but what can I do? Tonight, knowing it’s their last chance, they don’t leave me as I move away from the fountain. More and more descend, pecking at my head, nipping my arms as I try to shield my eyes, flapping around my legs to trip me up. Terrified of their intentions, I start to run. My hotel is not far, two or three blocks, maybe. In my fear and confusion I’m lost. Racing through shadowy streets, emptied of all life, I run and run, my breath heaving in my chest. At last, I see the hotel sign at the end of an alley. Making a last push, I am almost there when the pain strikes. A powerful fist slams in my stomach. I crumple and collapse onto the street, the birds still screaming around me.

Later, my children would be told I’d suffered a massive heart attack.

Death had been instantaneous, they were told. That’s not quite true. There’d been time enough to wonder which bird had claimed my wish and flown away free.


Milano Gottico

“I have forgotten my umbrella,” mused Gabrielle di Bonacci. The sky above Milan’s spires and pinnacles  was a blazing cobalt. “Looks like it’s going to be a beautiful day. Maybe I’ll chance it.” This was an unusual decision as Gabrielle always appeared dressed like a proper English gentleman.

Since his return from a posting in London, Signor di Bonacci had adopted the cultural and haberdashery habits of an English banker. He ate his meals in a restaurant that provided him with steak & kidney pudding; the chef-owner privately very rude about this peculiar Italian pretending to be an Englishman in Milan. His suits were copied from Savile Row. He never appeared in public without his bowler hat and furled umbrella, until today.

During his months in The City, Gabrielle had been awed by the unceasing industry that generated so much wealth. That there were so many unwashed sleeping in doorways, extending their hands for succour, was simply a side effect of concentrating on the big picture.  Milan had its full share of beggars, pickpockets, sneak-thieves and unfortunates. Why should they not also acquire London’s financial acumen? Such were Gabrielle’s thoughts as he walked briskly through the piazza Duomo. He thought about lighting a candle, deciding as usual, he didn’t have time, hurrying on into the Galleria. He usually stopped for a ristretto, but his fine Swiss watch insisted he was late, so he kept going.

Approaching the square near La Scala where so trams many originate, he saw an unusually large, angry crowd. There seemed to be no trams. Tapping a man on the shoulder, he asked politely, ‘When is the next car to piazza Cardusio?’

“Bastardo, non ei niente!” With this and other similarly sulphurous exclamations, Gabrielle understood; there had not been any trams  – ever; that stupido! This was piazza Cardusio; and this man, personally, intended to murder the Milan-Transit Authority’s manager, his mother, sister and all his cousins.
How had he not recognised his tram stop? Maybe the loitering multitudes had made it impossible to recognise any landmarks. This would never be allowed to happen in London. He sighed. I must keep walking. Perhaps this hold-up will clear. Several trams will come along in a bunch, allowing all these people to get where they want to go.

He walked, manoeuvring  like David Beckham, as it became harder to move through the crowds. Strangely, they all seemed to be going in the same direction. Did all these people really want to go to Palazzo della Borsa? Apparently they did. Realizing there was no way he could get to work on time, Gabrielle thought to stop at Peck for a coffee. To no avail. There the press of bodies was so strong, he was caught in the undertow of people eddying towards the Stock Exchange. He could not speed up, nor slow down, nor get out of the wave.

As his section pressed into the piazza, Gabrielle became aware of an angry susurration, Nearing the Borsa, he checked his watch – after 11:00. It was closed. Impossibile! How could the greatest financial institution in Italy be closed at this hour? Retreating out to the edge of the crowd, he received another shock. All the banks lining the piazza were also closed.

“Porca miseria” Signor Bonacci never swore, but this was an extraordinary situation. He understood the crowds’ anger. If there is anything an Italian cares about more than his car, his clothes, his figura, it is his money. Today, the banks, all of them, were closed. This was intolerable.

He shivered and looked up at the sky. The brazen cobalt morning had clouded over, now presenting a face as grim as an evil magician waving a leaden cape over the multitudes in the piazza. As the first drops of rain began to descend, Gabrielle thought, I knew I should have brought my umbrella. Maybe he could squeeze into a space under one of the arcades? Not a chance. The people there were squashed as tightly as commuters on the Northern Line after a jumper on the tracks. How it used to irritate him, stuck in with all the unwashed, just because some poor unfortunate had decided to end it by leaping under a Tube train during rush hour.

Nothing to do. He pulled his collar up and turtled his head into his jacket. Maybe this won’t last long. It didn’t, in a manner of speaking. The rain turned to hail. Freezing pellets the size of golf balls bounced onto the protesting crowd. These were succeeded by clouds of black birds, wings beating helplessly as they fell and died.

Next there were rats, some dead, some not A blood-curdling shriek, made him turn his head. A buxom, bling-bedecked woman, her red lipstick smeared onto her chin, was desperately trying to bat a scrabbling creature off her head. The crowd howled their disapproval.

Dead rodents changed into coins, freezing coins, that drummed onto heads provoking more screaming.

“They came here to get money,” Gabrielle muttered. “This isn’t what they had in mind.” Soon the coins were mixed with stones that might be gold. It didn’t matter. The torrent was so powerful, so unending, no one could stoop to examine them. People were trying to run, pushing and shoving, to get away from the onslaught. Someone fell, was trampled underfoot; then another and another. Bloodied stones were covered with stinking fish and dying animals, larger and larger animals. Heaven was emptying it’s chamber pots onto this piazza.
A bellowing horse landed on a group, squashing everyone under it. A phalanx of battered old FIATs followed, bouncing and pinging through the crowd, flattening and killing all they touched.

Recognizing the intent of this awful deluge, Gabrielle began fighting like the rest to escape the square. He pushed, punched, shoved – desperate to get out of the murderous piazza. Until, tripping on a slick of blood, falling under a heavy black boot, he marveled, “No one is complaining anymore.”


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.


copyright by author, 2014

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