We open our columns to talented new voices, who can send in (short) stories.
The first one is a short story by Eduardo Riccardo. It was some 30 pages he said, but now he tells us 'it would be more something like 50, even 60'. Hm. Okay. Only because we pity guys living on goat's milk and mountain herbs.
We publish it the old fashioned 19th century way: episodically.
She’s about to take a shower, he’s sitting by the window, looking out over the garden. He hears thumping noises, produced by the installing of perfume bottles and creams in his wife’s kingdom: the bathroom. Sixteen years ago they tiled it, together, Amber was on her way. It was only two years later the money started coming in, suddenly, in big waves, bringing along an army of plumbers, interior decorators, Feng Shui consultants and mindfulness coaches, and the end of their Early Romanticism. His ship came in. Downtown boy marries uptown girl and lives happily ever after.
Marjorie… Twenty-five he’d been. Her parents had never accepted him. In their eyes he had, basically, always remained a punk. He often forgot to tie his shoelaces, that was true. Or one of them. He was easily distracted, but a punk? Absent-minded, maybe. When their daughter crossed his path he was focused though. She had broken up (or was still in the act of) with her boyfriend, a DJ. He had seen her dancing. She was a bit chubby, but her posture… Proud. Quite inviting. And, most importantly: she spoke French. She was raised in the language. He liked girls speaking French. Her parents participated in a circuit of decent marriage fostering attempts, on behalf of their daughter they had the son of an old textile company in mind. He, the punk, had been the spoil-sport, the wet blanket.
When after a couple of months they happened to bump into her mother, who was in conversation with a friend, the first sentence that had come to his mind was “Bonjour Madame, je suis le mari de Marjorie”. He had been so nervous. He didn’t understand both women’s bewilderment. He could have sworn he’d said ‘ami’, not ‘mari’, Marjorie confirmed he hadn’t, leaving him three-against-one position. Anyway, it clearly hadn’t been the right opening sentence. It had taken his future mother-in-law two years to get over it – and even then only half.
He wonders if making love to a woman who was knocked up six weeks ago by a boy returning from hospital after a suicide attempt, has worsened his chances in Purgatory. What would Sister Alicia have said about it? He doubted if catechism foresaw this specific case. On the other hand, Catholics can never be underestimated. Instinctively he felt things didn’t look good. But: were the three elements constituting a mortal sin present? Grave matter, yes, without any doubt. He was married, he’s got two lovely daughters. He adored them, he was so proud of them. So he was in flagrant infraction upon the Sixth Commandment, to begin with. Adultery. No denying that. At Heaven’s gates they don’t wear big coats with pockets deep enough to smuggle away marriage certificates. They don’t even ask if you are married, they just know. A man with a long white beard would open the Book on the right page, letting his finger travel over it, then cast a very significant glance upon him, laughing slily. Everything they knew: above the sideboard full of rice pudding bowls and golden spoons for the lucky ones inside, a video popping up documenting the night he just came to enjoy. “Hi, honey…” It was a disaster. The Devil would appear behind him, hooking him, taking him off to Purgatory. In the background the flames bursting out of Hell, he sees them from afar, not to speak of the cries coming from within, terrifying, going to the bone.
But, on the other hand: were all three elements present? Full awareness? He thought not! He hadn’t known she was pregnant! So, at the utmost, we were talking about a venial sin, not a mortal one. He breathed three seconds in, nine out. He felt partially relieved.
He started peeling an orange. He tried to reconstruct what happened. Things were far from clear. Okay, the boy tried to commit suicide. On closer thought… even that was far from sure. He was lying on her bed, that’s a fact. No denying on that. Why would she lie? Had been swallowing more pills than was good for him. Mind the time though. She’d left for work early in the morning. If he’d only wanted to hurt her by leaving this planet, he thought, he would have done the job earlier, let’s say at ten, eleven, fresh as a daisy after a good night’s rest. But, he awaited the afternoon, he awaited her homecoming.
Putting two big slices in his mouth, swallowing down one, chewing on the other, he considered picking her up on this particular detail. Probably she was already aware of this: she had accompanied him into the emergency unit; no doubt doctors had told her how long these pills had been in his stomach. She would have understood immediately, she was no fool. A cry for attention, that’s what it looked like.
A baby. He pondered the word, pronounced it, whispering. It sounded weird, now, in this house. Yesterday there had been Marjorie, Amber, Lily. There hadn’t been a baby around. Now there was one. Okay – maybe not really. After six weeks he supposed they didn’t call it a baby yet. How would Sister Alicia have called it? An embryo. Maybe not even that. A ‘pre-embryo’. Something like that. Yes, - there was no man overboard: it was only a pre-embryo. One wants it, or doesn’t. If not one could cut it off, like an abscess. Did insects experience pain? Did flowers cry? He thought not. One did have to draw the line somewhere. He bet Sister Alicia would have told him this thought, this very thought, would already cost him a hundred years extra burning. Then, on this specific point, she was wrong. And if she wasn’t, what was a hundred years on a total of a billion? Not much. We were talking big margins here.
‘Ridiculous.’ His hands trembled. He pulled open the drawer, took a pill.
In his bathroom, in front of the mirror, a woman was smearing anti-stretch cream on her belly.
He washed down what was left of the orange. A bird landed on the window-sill. A crow. The crow was looking through the glass, into the room. As if he was searching for someone. He didn’t like this crow. If you don’t move, birds cannot see you. He didn’t move; he even held his breath. Now the crow clearly started looking at him. He still kept his breath. The bird kept looking, focusing on his eyes. It was Satan. He felt it. Purgatory! Hell! His palms felt sweaty. He didn’t budge for an inch. Suddenly the bird croaked: “Let me kiss thy mouth. I will kiss thy mouth, Jokanaan, I will kiss thy mouth!” He jumped up of his chair, shouting: “I do not wish to look at thee, Satan, thou art accursed!” Upon which the bird spread its wings, disappeared into the elm tree.
He sat down again, wiping his forehead, not realizing what had happened. In the bathroom, the water stopped.
“Is everything okay, darling?”
“Just a bird on the window-sill, honey. Nothing to worry about. He’s gone now. A blackbird, I don’t like them.”
“You sound very Hitchcock, dear.”
“Just take your time, honey. Nothing to worry about, really. The blackbird is gone.” He took another orange. “Now, where was I? Yes - the pill-boxes.” Closer examination of the pill-boxes could make the answer indeed decisive: going through the bathroom pharmacy, did the boy make a selection? Did he avoid the bad ones? And what about the doses? Maybe, amongst them there had been a box with very dangerous ones. (Or very easy ones, it depends on how one looked at these things.) You’re standing in front of this bathroom mirror, looking to yourself, white pills gleaming in the palm of your hand, knowing that, if you have let’s say ten of them, you’re done. No chance of being found alive then, nor of becoming the father of whatever child, never ever. You’re dead as a doornail. Did he pour half of them back into the box? “Let’s have five or six of them, i’ll have a couple of hours extra sleep, she’ll find me, she’ll feel guilty as hell.”
And where were all these pills coming from? What were they good for?
The bird flying up, as if startled, out of the tree, into the ocean of blue. He turns around. Rebecca is standing behind him, dripping, a beach towel draped around her waist.
“Did you hear what I was asking you?”
He’s surprised. He didn’t hear anything. Only the bird. Satan.
“You don’t listen when I’m talking to you, Ben. You should though, really. If you don’t listen then what’s the point of my talking? Of my being here? This isn’t a good start, is it?” She looks utterly disappointed.
“Sorry, darling, I didn’t mean to…”
“It isn’t a matter of what you meant to, Ben, it’s a matter of what you’re doing. I need hand soap. There’s no hand soap in there.” She points towards the rear. She walks back into the bathroom.
He hurries up the stairs, finds the bath soap with the pink peonies on the label in Amber’s room. Hurries down again.
Next day two things happen. In the morning his wife is calling him. The conversation starts quite encouraging, her voice is mellifluous, almost sweet even, she says, “Look Ben, I’m going to do you a favour…” His heart skips a beat.
“Oh darling, that’s so grand of you, I knew you’d understand. After all, it wasn’t what it…”
(to be continued in couple of days)
Take a look at
the art network on Instagram.