(an excerpt) Chapter 10: The Witch’s Ball

 

This passage of writing here is a sample from the 10th chapter of the first draft of my soon to be completed book: The Hermeporta. The book is a novel of Historical Fiction based in early Baroque Italy in the year 1611: it involves the narrative of my fictional characters intertwining with real historical figures, and some of the dramatic events in the life of the scientist Galileo. I aim to finish the first draft by the end of December 2015.

 

 

Chapter 10: The Witch’s Ball

 

The Professor slept and dreamed: and found himself in the air behind the two witches in flight, and high above the houses of Florence moving at great speed. Diana shone with her silver skin and the crescent moon in her hair, and Circe focused her attention on the view ahead, with her bandanna of woven gold the only thing to tame her brunette locks as they billowed out behind her. The clouds raced past as the women flew on, high in the air, and over the river Arno. Within minutes the women, who steered their brooms with grace, had cleared the boundaries of Florence and passed the Fortezza da Basso, and headed for the fields beyond. As they flew further into the countryside the pair waved at a flock of geese that flew towards them in formation: ‘where do you fly to?’ shouted out the silver skinned witch to the approaching flock,
‘we fly to The Great Swamps of Babylon to rest and feed our young’ honked the leader,
‘one of them is tired’ shouted the smaller witch, who stretched out her arm toward a young goose that had trailed behind, and turned her wrist to lift the air under the bird, which helped it catch up with its siblings and parents; a honk of thanks came back as the formation flew on. ‘Tell me what herbs you find when you return in the spring’ the silver witch shouted after the flock, ‘I have some trade in Baghdad’ the leaders gave distant honks back that they would.
‘Lake Surreale will be near, Diana’ said the smaller witch, ‘everyone will arrive soon’,
‘Yes, I think I can see the lake now’ said Diana as she gestured to a bright silver spot on the horizon that looked like a shard of mirror surrounded by trees.
The professor floated behind, without a body, as the women descended as they approached the lake.
As the women slowed their flight and lowered altitude the Professor observed that many torches had been lit: some burned with a green flame, others with orange, blue, or pink. The light lit up the trunks of the olive and Cyprus trees that flanked the edges of the small lake, and made them glow with colour. The women slowed their descent again, as they drew closer to the enclosed field, with grass kept low by the grazing of goats and sheep.
As the women descended the air grew warm, and mushrooms sprouted upon damp wooden stumps in the longer grass nearer the trees. The Professor could see from his vantage point as the women drew closer that many guests were arriving in the clearing.
Men and women of different ages, and some younger guests, had arrived using varied means of transport.
The Professor could see a middle-aged woman wearing a splendid diadem studded with jewels, and a long white silk cape, arrive saddled on the back of a huge rooster with a bit and bridle in its beak, and a teen-aged boy that wore a blue silk bandanna and a black body stocking who held onto the woman’s bare waist. The two witches on their brooms exchanged glances, as they descended behind the trees: ‘I’ll have words with her’ said Diana, as the women jockeyed off their brooms, and wedged them into the low branches of an olive tree and said: ‘stay put’ in German, before they prodded at the brooms to be sure they were fixed and well behaved.
The women walked past several other brooms like theirs but with different coloured ribbon or fabric to tie the sorghum grass; each witch or warlock had their own preference or style. Some chose to ride metal pokers, or bits of broken furniture, which were all wedged into tree branches and hung at jaunty angles.
The witches stopped a short while to point and titter at a greasy leg of salted mutton, and a black hoofed Spanish ham wedged into an oak tree, and took comfort that there would be some good cooks among their number that night. More guests could be seen arriving as the women walked through the trees and toward the clearing.
Many couples, opposite and same sex, walked hand in hand as they emerged through the trees at the opposite side of the the grassy expanse. A gang of six women and three men arrived to the gathering each upon the backs of huge cats, almost the size of horses, that came up the clearing to the south of the lake in great leaps and bounds over bushes and grass, as their glamorous masters clung to their fur. The riders brought their cats to a halt and the felines then stooped to allow them to dismount, before the animals quenched their thirst at the lakeside with whiskers as long as oars, that dipped into the water as their vast furry tongues lapped at the lake’s edge. The new arrivals drew some admiration from the other guests, for their bold entrance, as the crowd assembled, more than a hundred strong, around a large fire that had been lit within a stone circle in the middle of the clearing. A man and woman had begun to beat out a rhythm on their leather drums, and a group of satyrs began to play on their wooden pipes, which drew spontaneous cheers from the crowds as they mingled and spoke with one another. Several smaller fires were lit around the larger one, and meats were roasted above the flames and cauldrons put to boil as guests tossed various ingredients into the vats. The crowd grew to almost two hundred as the witches and warlocks chatted, flirted, and laughed with one another, while their familiars occupied themselves or took rest near the trees, as the sound of voices and music thronged in the air. Diana and Circe picked up some drinks in fine glass and gold goblets, which had appeared on tree stumps or low tables, that shone in the moonlight as the witches sampled the beverages: ‘the drinks are flowing tonight’ said Circe,
‘Indeed they are. What are you drinking?’ said Diana after taking a sip of her drink,
‘I don’t know, but it tastes good’ said the smaller witch. The two women crossed the clearing as guests milled about, and they made their way toward the witch that had arrived on her rooster, but had to pause as a large centaur, at least seven feet at the shoulder, crossed their path and eyed the women up. Circe gave a coquettish glance over her goblet in the centaur’s direction as he passed: fury chested and broad shouldered. The ground trembled as he walked: ‘be careful, Circe’ said Diana, ‘they can be aggressive’,
‘I know’ said Circe, ‘but I’ve never tried one before: that one looks nice’. Diana raised an eyebrow and tutted: ‘you’d be sore in the morning dear, sore in the morning’. Circe broke off her look, scoffed, and took a deep swig from her goblet, before she then stepped to one side to pick up another drink.
Yet more guests arrived using brooms, rods, or whatever came to hand: one court musician had greased his violin to get there, and then used his bow on it to join in the tune of the satyrs. Still more rode on the backs of Hares with long ears and bright amber eyes, or bridled toads and foxes, and one very fat man, that looked like a Cardinal, who had chosen to arrive on a massive hairy pig had got the first big laugh of the evening: when the hefty pair had flown through the air like a furry dough ball, and landed on the ground with a loud thud and a reeking gust, after the pig had farted upon impact, much to the amusement of those that saw them. The two witches threw their heads back in laughter, and had almost made it to the side of the woman wearing the diadem and the white cape when a very old man, not to be upstaged, with an immense silver beard grown almost to his knees, then arrived via the trees on the back of a unicorn with two shapely women young enough to be his grand daughters. The crowd turned to applaud the man and two women who were perched on the magnificent beast, which, when prompted, reared up, hoofed at the moon, and uttered an ethereal whinny that echoed around the clearing above the music, before its passengers slid off its well groomed back. The unicorn then cantered to the lake for a drink next to the cats, before joining a group of centaurs that greeted the beast with joyful slaps on its back.

‘That’s quite an entrance. Good evening sisters’ said the witch, with grandeur, wearing the jeweled diadem and white cape to Diana and Circe, as they both stared at the bald bearded man as he walked off arm in arm, towards the roasting food, with his comely, naked and organza wrapped, companions.
‘Indeed it is’ said Diana looking on as the three witches exchanged dry kisses with each other in stiff greeting, ‘and that’s quite a pair he’s found himself’ she continued. A silence fell on the group, and Diana took a long slurp from her glass, and followed the threesome with her eyes and turned her shoulders away from the witch in the white cape. The other witch looked Diana up and down and smirked before she made her reply: ‘two village twins from Prato I’m told. I’m sure your famous tinctures help him keep up with those two beauties’. Diana chewed back a narrow eyed smile: ‘I’m sure you would know: you’ve bought enough of it yourself for your own uses’. Circe took a deep sip from her cup, as the other witch pouted and sucked at her teeth before she replied: ‘we all have our needs’ and glared at Diana as her silver skin shone in the moonlight. Diana didn’t want to waste time, and thought it best to get on with it as her face hardened like a papier-mache mask.
‘While we’re on the topic of needs, Donna Barolo, there is something I need from you: may I remind you that your account is outstanding’ the other witch’s expression stiffened before she answered,
‘Don’t bore me with money talk now, and please don’t use my mule’s name when we’re at the Sabbat: most of us come here to forget our husbands, or enjoy another’s’. Circe raised her glass in salute, at the other witch’s statement, before Diana cut her a look. ‘I’m Hera tonight, as you can see’ she continued and swept at her cloak which revealed Peacock eyes painted onto the underside of the white silk, ‘and I wouldn’t be calling you Lucia, in front of others, Diana, even if you owed me money or not’. Diana pouted, but spoke again: ‘suit yourself’ she said with blank eyes, ‘but I want you to pay me after Mass, the Sunday after next: that’s two weeks from now. Your mule should be back from Genoa by then, and if you don’t pay I’ll have to stop business with you’, Hera folded her arms, but Diana carried on, ‘it’s a long, long, boat ride to the Far East on your own to get what I have to offer ,Hera, so bear that in mind the next time you’re found wanting’. Hera gave a stiff smile at the threat, as Circe downed her cup, and took up another drink and a bite to eat that passed on a tray held by a handsome youth wearing a toga. The smaller witch eyed him up as he passed, before she scanned the wider area whilst she drank and ate, and made mental notes of men she liked in the jostling crowds.
Diana also scanned the area, between stilted small talk with Hera, as she sipped at her drink, but made mental notes of those who owed her money, and the fresh business she could drum up from the eclectic gathering. Hera made a gesture to catch the eye of the youth with the blue bandanna, and before long he stood next to her: ‘meet my son, Giacomo’ said Hera. The silver skinned witch tilted her head in welcome, and the youth bowed: ‘Giacomo, this is Diana, the famous woman I told you about’ Diana’s expression softened, ‘it’s his first Sabbat’. The fifteen year old smiled, and complemented Diana, before he used his charm to engage her in pleasant chatter. Circe downed her fresh glass and made her excuses, before she walked towards three well-dressed men near the lake edge which she had flirted with on her last Sabbat: ‘time to try again’ she said to herself as she made unsteady progress toward the men. Silent as a ghost the Professor followed her as his vision unfolded.

‘What do you see?’ said the voice of Celeste next to the Professor as he lay on the bed with his eyelids closed but his eyeballs twitching beneath. It took a while for him to respond: ‘I see all sorts of people and beasts at a clearing near a lake, there are fires everywhere, people are mingling, and Circe is approaching three men who are standing by the lakeside’
‘Typical: she’s as stubborn as a mule’ Celeste snorted, ‘it’s the Guapano brothers: they’ll turn her down again. What else do you see? Is there a man there that’s much taller than the others?’ The Professor twisted his head as if to look about,
‘The Centaurs are tallest, but the music is getting louder and people are starting to dance’.

Celeste moved closer: ‘tell me more, tell me everything you see, has anyone new arrived?’ The Professor mumbled and frowned at the question as his head turned from side to side, and sweat clung to his brow: ‘no, no one new has arrived; I think all are here’ the man’s head turned again from side to side, and then grew still. Celeste wrung her hands, stood, and then paced up and down. She looked at the Professor where he lay feverish and restless, as he struggled at his bonds, and turned his head this way and that as is if searching the whole area of his vision. The man then grew still and spoke again:‘Wait, I think I see something, yes, I see three birds in the sky’ Celeste’s expression changed as she knitted her brow, ‘what three birds? Describe them for me’. The Professor moved his head as if looking for a better view before he spoke: ‘large water birds, they could be geese, no, no, I’m wrong they’re swans, the birds are swans: two white and one black. They’re flying down, and they’re landing on the water. They’re huge’ Celeste fidgeted.

‘What are they doing?’ she said, her breath catching short in her throat. The Professor craned his head again, eyes still closed, as if to get a better look.

‘They’re swimming towards the shore, and they’re almost here, but they’ve just dived under the water’ the Professor’s head bobbed and weaved, ‘I don’t see anything, just ripples on water’ Celeste grimaced, and the Professor paused for a long time as if looking:

‘Keep talking’ she said, ‘you must tell me all that you see’ the Professor struggled as he slept and his trance unfolded,
‘Some-thing’s happening. Heads are rising out of the water, a man with a dark beard and two women with white skin… his clothes are dry, the water doesn’t touch him, and he’s tall, very tall indeed’
Celeste spun round and clutched at herself:‘It’s Him’ shouted Celeste and clapped her hands to her head, ‘he’s come’ she said her voice loud and strained, ‘it’s the dark one, the Dark Prince’ the witch shook all over, ‘tell me what you see Winston, spare no detail’. The Professor’s words then came at speed: ‘the women have horns and their eyes glow. They’re the colour of ivory, but they have long black nails. People are moving out of their way, and the music has stopped. The man is even taller than the centaurs, maybe eight feet, he follows them and he wears a long black robe with red slashed sleeves: he looks like a priest’
‘It’s Him; I know it’ Celeste exclaimed, ‘he’s come to talk with her. I warned her of this. I warned her, warned her, but she wouldn’t listen’ Celeste then clutched her hands to her face, turned herself back round to run to her chair, and rock herself backward and forward: ‘heaven help me, I can’t bear it, what’s happening?’ she said as her feet tapped on the ground and she squeezed her knees with her hands.
The Professor lay rigid as if unable to move: ‘He’s walking towards Diana, and all have moved aside. She stands alone. Everyone’s watching’ Celeste had reached under her wimple and started to pull at her hair as the strands fell, ‘Oh Lucia, why don’t you listen to me, when it’s I that can keep you safe’.
Celeste had turned pink and had started to cry, but the Professor carried on: ‘he’s reached out his hand to her, I think he’s inviting her to dance, but no one’s moving, everyone’s quiet as death. Diana hasn’t spoken…’ the Professor drew in a sharp breath: ‘she’s refused him, everyone is shocked, she’s walking away’. Celeste leaped out of her chair as if jabbed with a pin: ‘I can’t hear anymore!’ she exclaimed and lit a stick of incense, before she said a short prayer and then passed the incense under the Professors nose.

The Professor awoke from his trance in that moment with a stifled shout, to find himself back in Lucia’s room. Celeste untied his bonds and tossed him the clothes she presented him earlier. The Professor shook his head and pawed at his face and eyes as he readjusted to his surroundings. Celeste had retreated into the lap of the Golem, the perfect replica of Lucia, and ran her hands over its body, before she clasped one of its breasts and wept on its shoulder. The Professor froze mid motion, with his mouth ajar, to look at Celeste, with deep thought, and observed the woman as she sobbed and clutched at the rigid Golem here and there. He sat still for minutes to watch and listen before he spoke:
‘You love her don’t you?’ he said, before he pulled on his clothes. Celeste wiped at her bloodshot eyes, and left damp patches on the sleeve of her habit as she dabbed at her long, thin, and red nose that dripped like a twig after rain. Celeste gave a fractional nod: ‘Lucia’s never touched me, not once, not even to use The Grip if I displeased her’. The Professor rubbed at his bruised neck in memory: ‘you don’t want to be touched like that, trust me’ he said,
‘It’s better than nothing’ said Celeste between heaved sobs, her speech interrupted, ‘she’s used The Grip several times on Arcangela, and I used to envy her, can you believe it?: even when Lucia threw her across the room. She deserved it though; Arcangela’s stubborn and mouthy, but she knows better now. But I just do as I’m told, and get no reward for it’. Celeste looked up to the ceiling and then heaved up more tears, and abandoned herself to sorrow as her shoulders shook. The Professor had looked again at the forlorn woman as he spoke: ‘is that why you cling to that thing then?’ he said pointing to the Golem,
‘She’s not a thing, she’s a woman’ said Celeste as she wiped at her tears, and slug like nose that gurgled and bubbled with the effort of breathing, ‘I read to her, and talk to her when Lucia’s away, and Arcangela sneaks out of the convent at night to go gambling’ the Professor smiled to himself when he thought of the little witch and tutted, ‘when they’re gone I comb her hair, and tell her stories. We cuddle sometimes, and we speak a little’ the Professor looked on, but shook his head,
‘You’re not supposed to read to, or touch a Golem: it develops their mind and feelings. She’ll want to live, you know, it could be dangerous’ he said,
‘I don’t care’ said Celeste with another wipe of her nose, ‘she already reads prayer to the nuns when we let her’ replied Celeste, ‘who else do I have? I have no one: nothing’. The Professor pondered her words but didn’t argue. Celeste sat still for a while, and looked at the floor, before she wiped at her tears again, and took some deep but unsteady breaths before stood up and entered the side room to turn the crank and reopen the sky hatch. The moon had moved and the sky, filled with stars, had lightened from black to dark blue to look like velvet scattered with diamonds. The Professor stood up from his bed and took the chance to look into the side room in more detail. Celeste didn’t protest when he walked in as she continued to turn the crank: ‘time is passing’ she said looking up through the hatch that framed a patch of sky as it grew lighter, ‘they’ll have to return quite soon’ she said as the Professor walked past a large mirror draped with fabric, and toward a bookshelf he had not seen before, ‘they must be back before cock’s crow’.
‘What’s this?’ said the Professor reaching out for a small rectangular box wrapped in purple silk decorated with gold stars. Celeste screamed: ‘Don’t touch that’ before the Professor drew back as if slapped, ‘if she sees you touch that box she’ll kill you, I mean it, she would’
‘What’s in it?’ said the Professor after he had frowned and rubbed at his chest,
‘I don’t know’ came the reply, ‘but once Arcangela tried to find out, and managed to touch the box before Lucia used The Grip on her. I’ve never been so scared: she threw her like a stone’. Celeste stood transfixed as she spoke as if reliving the experience: ‘Sour Maddalena had to nurse Arcangela for two weeks, we all thought she would die, and of course I could say nothing. When the nuns asked questions I said she fell down the chapel steps after prayer: I hated lying, and I’m not sure they believed me, but what else could I say?’ Celeste had then stood still with a blank stare beyond the room, with her hands suspended in the air as if pleading for mercy as she told the story, she then made a sign of the cross before she recovered herself to finish turning the crank on the wall, and spoke again: ‘please get some sleep; they’ll be here soon. They’ll have to hurry before cock’s crow’. The Professor  nodded and then turned to the woman to speak: ‘how do I get out here?’ he said, Celeste shrugged,
‘I don’t know. But I think she likes you, and we know that you’ve come to learn from her books. You’re fortunate that she wants to teach you. You must know something that she wants, or she wouldn’t bother. Most men she discards after one use: they don’t interest her for long’.
The Professor raised his arms and shook them at Celeste: ‘well perhaps if she didn’t use force…’ said the Professor before he rubbed at his wrists and his voice trailed off. He then made his way back through the side room to his bed, and got under the covers.
The nun walked back into the room when she finished turning the crank: ‘most times she doesn’t have to use force’ she continued, ‘but you’re different’ said Celeste as she blew out all the candles accept one before she retired. The professor tuned to the wall in the gloom, but struggled to sleep for two hours: his mind going over what he had seen and what had been done to him, when two shadows appeared above the hatch, and he tried to ignore the witches as they floated down, from the twilight, into the side room to return from the ball. Lucia had then turned the crank again to close the hatch.
Arcangela giggled to herself and shuffled around in the dark, to then pick up her things and bump and wobble her way out of the room. As Arcangela’s limp and her years crept back upon her she lost her enchanted youth with every step she took. But the Professor, through squinted eyes, could still detect the faint glow of Lucia, and her sweet perfume before she went to her own bed: after she had then drawn close to him and stroked his shoulder in the warmth of the dark.

 

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