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Apr/May 2002 fiction

Dead Chrysanthemums

by David King


 

Don Fabio was a man permanently pleased with himself. You know the type: they wear pietistic smiles and their teeth are invariably capped. If he had been English or American, he would perhaps have been a politician but within his own fiefdom politics was confined to the dictionary. Don Fabio ruled. Absolutely.

He began life as plain Fabio, youngest of eight siblings in a fishing family. Being the only boy, he was held in adoration, so although his parents were poor, Fabio grew up expecting privilege. He believed his mother was a virgin and began to think she might even be a saint when, on her supplication, he was spared a fisherman's life. "My son is destined for greatness, not drowning," she told his father. Unlike his sisters, he escaped the gutting and cleaning of the catch too. "That's women's work," insisted his mother, so Fabio experienced the sea from the safety of dry land. Alone on a headland above his village, he composed wild melodies that sang of turbulent water, treacherous winds, and naked rocks, teased them from his soul on uilleann pipes inherited from his maternal grandfather, a shipwrecked Irishman who never found his way back to Connemara.

To his sisters' embarrassment and his father's disgust, as Fabio neared puberty he took to dancing, ecstatic and often naked, on nights when the moon shone full. But his mother proclaimed, "My son, the genius," and Fabio's sanctimonious smile was set for life.

 

His panache in performing arts gained the attention of the local aristo, Don Paolo, who invited him to play at a summer soirée. As Fabio's chanters soared to their final shimmering wail, the audience sat in stolid silence. Then the Don, who had appeared to be asleep, suddenly began to clap and cheer. Afterwards, he offered Fabio a non-musical career. "You have a talent for surprise," he said.

Fabio hummed and hawed but encouraged by the Don's nods said, "I'll give it a month. Then if I don't like it..."

Don Paolo smiled in a way that Fabio found familiar but could not identify. He was unaware then that a Don Paolo request was one you didn't refuse. However, such callous ignorance was overlooked when Fabio proved he was adept at pressing more than Irish bellows into playing the tunes he wanted. He gleaned such golden pickings from the most dismal cases that Don Paolo said, "A gift, Fabio. Which of my possessions would you choose?"

Fabio did not hesitate. "Michola," he said.

Don Paolo's eyes sparked. "I meant within reason, Fabio."

"Even so," said Fabio and he stared the Don out.

Michola, Don Paolo's only child, was a rather husky girl and also prone to sneering. "Marry your musical peasant?" she said. "He stinks of fish."

Nevertheless, the wedding took place.

Within months Don Paolo accused Fabio of trying to supplant him. "I am the only Don here," he said, fingering a silver-hilted stiletto. He tried to skewer Fabio but failed and placed a contract on him instead. Michola chose that moment to run away with a subservient bandit chief she claimed she had always loved. Thus rejected twice, Fabio fled into the hills.

 

Contracts sometimes bite back and several that Fabio negotiated on behalf of his father-in-law did just that. The dissatisfied parties were the powerful Giuliano family and they demanded a rearrangement. Don Paolo sent messages to Fabio: My son, you are forgiven but Fabio kept his distance and Don Paolo had to renegotiate alone. Eyewitnesses declare that he was 'stuck like a pig' as he entered the Giuliano boardroom and, after declaring the meeting closed, the directors removed the Don's head and hung his body from their walls before releasing it into the river that flowed beneath.

 

Fabio descended from the hills, consolidated the holdings that, as the Don's son-in-law, he felt were now his by right. After retrieving Michola from the bandit he referred to himself as Don Fabio, as if repossession of his predecessor's daughter lent legitimacy. He organized a commemoration for her father, at which he gave the eulogy. He claimed Don Paolo's love for him was uncomplicated and pure, unlike that of fickle women. Michola said nothing but a smile froze over her face and remained throughout the service. Her thoughts might be surmised from her reaction at the ensuing feast, when Fabio included a selection of his naked leaps and flings, in time to reckless reels from his skirling pipes. "How glorious was great Don Fabio today," she said. "Displaying himself to servant girls like a cocksure rent-boy."

His uilleann pipes were silent but Fabio still swayed to their music. "I can do far worse," he slurred. "So that I might even despise myself. But I'll tell you this," He waved an uncertain arm at the gathering still around them. "These servant girls would be glad to have me."

Michola spat at his feet. "Then let them share your bed," she said. "For I never will again."

"Not much happened when you did," said Fabio.

With the collaboration of the local priest, Father Nathaniel, he petitioned for a decree of nullity. On the day it was granted, Fabio despatched Michola to her bandit and then visited his old home, where he nodded at his father and sisters and kissed his mother. She clamped him to her bosom as he began to weep. Tears dried, Fabio climbed to the wind-battered headland of his boyhood dreams, carrying his uilleann pipes. He played the first lament his mother had taught him, dragging his feet from side to side in time with the music, then raised the pipes skywards and hurled them as far as he could. He heard a few strangled drones as they snatched on obstacles and then a faint, final smack as they met the sea.

 

Fabio became a patron of the church. Father Nathaniel had assured him of God's ear, so Fabio used him as a sounding board whenever he felt his business plans might edge into the unethical. As approval appeared automatic, Fabio began to consider God as a sort of spiritual partner.

The Giulianos remained bellicose and the dispute reached crisis point midway through a summer. Mindful of Don Paolo's sudden demise, Fabio sent his capo, Federico, and the cream of his executive to secure his interests against that family's ambitions. He thought his own skills were better kept at home.

One evening, he was resting on his bed after enjoying a young-vatted Verdicchio. He rose and stretched, intending to pee, then sniffed noisily, inhaling the combined scents of jasmine and the rosa primula that wound past his window towards the eaves. He almost remembered something, a vision of pale limbs in fading sunlight perhaps, but it did not linger. He sneezed then sneezed again. "Fresh air, Don Fabio. You need air."

He unlocked a door that brought him out onto the roof. A leaded walkway followed the perimeter, guarded by a stone parapet. Fabio strolled along the leads to a position vertically above the jasmine and the rose, opened his flies, stood eloquently on tiptoe and sprinkled the blossoms.

He chose the long walk home. The house was a labyrinth of secrets and the roof snaked this way and that, looking out over lesser roofs, cool strands of water and the occasional giardino segreto. He was passing one of the latter, a leafy haven with a small pool, scarcely paying attention, when he heard a splash. He looked down; saw something shimmering, caught in the flat rays of the dying sun. As he watched, a woman reached out to a handrail at the pool's end.

Her face was pale, pleasantly proportioned and framed by hair as black as his Arabian mare's. As she pulled herself up from the water, Fabio saw the woman was as naked as his lust, which was expanding with each unblinking second. As if she sensed his intrusion, she began looking about her like a nervous blackbird and when she at last turned her eyes upward, her hands flew to cover her mouth.

Fabio rang for his major-domo and took him up to the roof. The man squinted and said, "Isn't that the house of Giovanni Motta? His wife is called Alessandra."

Fabio smiled and the major-domo stepped three paces backwards.

"Ah, Giovanni Motta," said Fabio. "My pious lieutenant."

 

He had her brought to him at midnight. He gasped at the sight of her—at a distance he had thought her beautiful, but close to, he saw that impression was wretchedly inadequate. Alessandra's face was such as would stir a man to valiant deeds. She wore a white nightshift, nothing on her feet, and she trembled constantly and kept wringing her hands as though she might be rid of him that way. Fabio enjoyed a sudden fancy that she was a fallen angel. Through her loins he might reach heaven.

"I won't hurt you," he said, and stepped towards her. Still shaking, Alessandra backed away until the wall prevented her, then she steadied herself, and glared at him.

"Giovanni Motta is my husband. He is away fighting your battles."

Fabio felt the resentment behind her words and within her deep, dark eyes. All thoughts of angels left his head. "And I am Don Fabio," he said. "I make the rules. I decide who lives, who dies."

She bit her lip, hung her head and allowed her arms to droop too, so he had to raise each one to pull her shift free. He hurled it to the floor and raised her head by yanking her hair, forcing her to look at him. He saw not reproach now but the fear of a hunted doe. "I won't hurt you," he said again, and decided to let her go. Then he looked at her body and knew he could not. "One night, Alessandra," he said. "Just one perfect night."

 

Months passed and, though her husband was still absent, Fabio never sought Alessandra once. She wasn't his only reinterpretation of jus primae noctis; after Michola rejected him so publicly he had misused the maidservants he'd boasted about. Several children had been conceived through them even if, in Fabio's mathematics, such offspring didn't count. So he shouldn't have been surprised when Alessandra told him she was pregnant, but nevertheless his face dropped. "How could you let it happen?"

"As I recall, I didn't have a choice." Her voice was steady and there was no fear in her eyes now, or reproach. "I want what is best for my child."

 

Fabio sent orders to Federico. Send Giovanni Motta home. A secret mission. When Giovanni arrived, Fabio questioned him about the dispute, how they were coping. "It's bad…" Giovanni began, and Fabio took notes.

"You've done well, Giovanni Motta," he said eventually and closed his notebook with a snap. Giovanni blinked. "The kitchen has orders to spoil you. Eat, drink what you will, then surprise your wife."

Giovanni gave a short bow and left, but never made the short journey home.

When Fabio heard this next morning, he summoned Giovanni. "An officer of mine sleeping with servants," he snorted, and an uninterpretable expression crossed Giovanni's face. "Why did you not go home?"

Giovanni raised his chin. "While my comrades sleep comfortless in rutted fields, I won't lie with Alessandra in a feather bed. Not for you, Don Fabio, not for anyone."

Fabio remembered why this man was called 'the pious one'. "You're a fool, Giovanni Motta," he said. "I could have you killed for insolence, but I admire your courage." He yawned, lay back, stretching his arms wide. "All right. Tomorrow you may return to your precious men." He uncorked a Chianti classico. "But today you'll drink with me."

Fabio poured wine until he judged Giovanni was anyone's for the taking. "Now go home and serve your wife." Still Giovanni refused.

Next morning, Fabio wrote to Federico. He sealed the envelope and placed it in Giovanni's hand. "Make sure this reaches him," he said.

He rang for his major-domo. "Giovanni Motta slept at home last night," he said.

The major-domo nodded, kept his gaze away from Fabio's. "Naturally," he said.

 

News arrived that several of Federico's best men had been ambushed and killed when they took a wrong turning. Giovanni Motta was among them.

Fabio visited the bereaved families. "It happens," he said to Alessandra. "Giovanni was a brave man, just doing his duty. I'm sorry."

Though her eyes were swollen from crying, Alessandra showed such dignity that Fabio felt she was the Don, and he still a simple musician.

"And will you do your duty?" she said.

 

As Alessandra's body swelled, people began to talk about how it was such a tragedy that her husband had been killed before he saw his only child. Fabio listened, then announced that he would not only assume financial care of the grieving widow but would also marry her and thus give a hero's child a father. The gossip turned to how generous their Don was to foster another man's child, no matter how beautiful the widow.

At the appropriate time, a boy was born to Alessandra and she named him Alessandro. Father Nathaniel called to make the baptismal arrangements and was shown into the business room. When Fabio and Alessandra entered, the priest had his back towards them, and was arranging and rearranging flowers in a tall urn. Finally he turned and said, "It is the custom for a firstborn boy to be named after his father."

Alessandra did not flinch. "And I choose to break it," she said.

Father Nathaniel stared at her for a while, then nodded. "A story," he said. "Two men, one rich, one poor. The rich man was successful in everything he did, had many assets, huge tracts of land, while the poor man had nothing except a wife. The rich man had been foolish enough to lose his. One day while the poor man was far from home, the rich man took his wife. Now what do you think of that?"

"It's a lousy story," said Fabio.

The priest shook his head slowly. "Oh, Fabio, Fabio," he said.

"What?" said Fabio, but he avoided Father Nathaniel's stare.

"You had all Don Paolo owned," said the priest. "Was that too little, Fabio?"

"No."

"Yet you make Giovanni's wife your own."

"I wanted to help," said Fabio after he and Alessandra exchanged glances.

"By killing her husband?"

Fabio laughed, yet it echoed in his ears like a cockcrow. "I have killed many men, Father, yet you and God said nothing. Why accuse me now? Giovanni was one of my own."

"Precisely," said the priest.

"Then why should I wish to kill him?"

"Because he refused to sleep with his wife when you brought him home for that purpose."

Fabio heard Alessandra gasp. He tried to squeeze her hand but she had moved beyond his reach.

"If Giovanni had lived," said the Father. "Everyone would know Alessandra was an adulteress."

Alessandra's lips moved, releasing silent words. The priest seemed not to notice but Fabio understood each one. "Rape. Not adultery but rape."

Her mute protest touched him, and he opened his mouth to say the words aloud for her. For that brief moment he was Fabio the peasant, but Don Fabio soon took control. "He was killed by the Giulianos," he said. "You know that, Father."

"Yes, yes. A hundred miles from here."

"So what are you saying?"

"Murder is not always direct."

Fabio's lips thinned and he twisted the new wedding ring on his finger. "On my son's life," he said. "I swear I am innocent of Giovanni Motta's death."

He looked at his wife. Alessandra said nothing, staring straight ahead beyond the priest, where the only things to see were a shroud-white wall and dead chrysanthemums in a funeral vase.

 

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