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The Best of Beneath Ceaseless Skies Online Magazine Year Eight, Page 2

Catherynne M. Valente

  Perdita told me of her predicament over my generous table. She spoke with more haste than precision, tearing out morsels of Mrs. Matterfact’s incomparable baked capon in almond sauce with her grubby fingers and fumbling it into that plump face whilst she rummaged amongst her French pockets for English words to close in her tale like a green and garnishing parsley. As far as I could gather, her cowherding father had, in his youth, contracted the disease of religion, a most severe and acute strain. He took the local clergyman’s daughter to wife, promptly locked her in his granary to keep her safe from both sin and any amusement at all, and removed a child from her every year or so until she perished from, presumably, the piercing shame of having tripped and fallen into one of the more tiresome fairy tales.

  Perdita’s father occupied the time he might have spent not slowly murdering his wife upon his one and only hobby: the keeping of birds of prey. Now, one cannot fault the man for that! But he loved no falcons nor hawks nor eagles, only a matched pair of black-hearted ravens he called by the names of Praisegod and Feargod (there really can be no accounting for, or excusing of, the tastes of Papists) which he had trained from the egg to hunt down the smallest traces of wickedness upon his estate and among his children. For this unlikely genius had taught his birds, painstakingly, to detect the delicate and complex scents of sexual congress, and the corvids twain became so adept that they were known to arrive at many a village window only moments after the culmination of the act.

  Now you have taken up all the pieces of this none-too-sophisticated puzzle and can no doubt assume the rest. My brother conquered Perdita’s virtue with ease, for no such dour and draconian devoutness can raise much else but libertines, a fact which may yet save us from the vicious fate of a world redeemed, and put my niece (for indeed it proved to be a niece) in her with little enough care for anything but the trees and the fish and the stones of his own bucolic life. No sooner than he had rolled off of her but Praisegod and Feargod arrived, screeching to wake the glorious dead, the scent of coupling maddening their black brains, and devoured Perdita’s eyeballs in a hideous orgy of gore and terribly poor parenting. Pomposo, ever steadfast and humbly responsible for his own affairs, sent his distress directly to me and, I imagine, poured a brimming glass of wine with which to toast himself.

  “My dear lady,” said I, gently prying a joint of Mrs. Matterfact’s brandied mutton from her fist, hoping to preserve at least something for myself, “I cannot imagine what you or my good brother mean me to do with a child. I am a bachelor, I wish devoutly to remain so, and my bachelorhood is only redoubled by my regrettable feelings toward children, which mirror the drunkard’s for a mug of clear water: well enough and wholesome for most, he supposes, but what can one do with one? But I am not pitiless. That, I am not, my dear. You may, of course, remain here until the child. . . occurs, and we shall endeavor to locate some suitable position in town for one of your talents.”

  Ah, but I had played my hand and missed the trick! “You misunderstand, monsieur,” protested the comely Perdita. “Mister Pompy didn’t send me to you for your hospitalité. He said in London he had a brother who could make me eyes twice as pretty as they ever were and would only charge me the favor of not squeezing out my babe on his parlor floor.”

  Even a thousand miles distant, my skinflint family could put the screws to me, turn them tight, and have themselves a nice giggle at my groans. But at least the old boy guessed my game of trousers and did not give me up, even to his paramour.

  “They was green,” the milkmaid whispered, and the ruination of her eye sockets bled in place of weeping. “Like clover.”

  Oh, very well! I am not a monster. In any event, I wasn’t then. At least the commission was an interesting enough challenge to my lately listless and undernourished intellect. So it came to pass that over the weeks remaining until the parturition of Perdita, I fashioned, out of crystal and ebony and chips of fine jade, twin organs of sight not the equal of mortal orbs but by far their superior, in clarity, in beauty, even in soulfulness. If you ask me how I accomplished it, I shall show you the door, for I am still a tradesman, however exalted, and tradesmen tell no tales. I sewed the spheres myself with thread of gold into her fair face, an operation which sounds elegant and difficult in the telling, but in the doing required rather more gin, profanity, and blows to the chin than any window did. When I had finished, she appeared, not healed, but more than healed—sublimated, rarefied, elevated above the ranks of human women with their filmy, vitreous eyes that could merely see.

  I have heard good report that, under another name, and with her daughter quite grown and well-wed, Perdita now sits upon the throne of the Netherlands, her peerless eyes having captivated the heart of a certain prince before anyone could tie a rock round her feet and drop her into a canal. Well done, say all us graspers down here, reaching up toward Heaven’s sewers with a thousand million hands, well done.

  Now, we arrive at the hairpin turn in the road of both my fortunes and my life, the skew of the thing, where the carriage of our tale may so easily overturn and send us flying into mud and thorns unknown. Brace your constitution and your credulity, for I am of a mind to whip the horses and take the bend at speed!

  It is simply not possible to excel so surpassingly as I have done and remain anonymous. God in his perversity grants anonymity to the gifted and the industrious in equal and heartless measure, but never to the splendid. Word of the girl with the unearthly, alien, celestial eyes spread like a plague of delight in every direction, floating down the river, sweeping through the Continent, stowing away on ships at sea, until it arrived, much adorned with my Lady Rumor’s laurels, at the palazzo of the Doge in darling, dripping Venice.

  Now, the Doge at that time had caused himself, God knows why or by dint of what wager, to be married to a woman by the name of Samaritiana. Do not allow yourselves to be duped by that name, you trusting fools! Samaritiana would not even stop along the side of the road to Hell to wrinkle her nose at the carcass of Our Lord Jesus Christ, though it save her immortal soul, unless He told her she was beautiful first. Oh, ‘tis easy enough to hate a vain woman with warts and liver spots, to scorn her milk baths and philtres and exsanguinated Hungarian virgins, to mock her desperation to preserve a youth and beauty that was never much more enticing than the local sheep in the first place, but one had to look elsewhere for reasons to hate Samaritiana, for she truly was the singular beauty of her age. Black of hair, eye, and ambition was she, pale as a maiden drowned, buxom as Ceres (though she had yet no issue), intoxicating as the breath of Bacchus. Fortunately, my lady thoughtfully provided a bounty of other pantries in which to find that meat of hatred fit for the fires of any heart.

  She was, quite simply, the worst person.

  I do not mean by this to call the Dogaressa a murderess, nor an apostate, nor a despot, nor an embezzler, nor even a whore, for whores, at least, are kindly and useful, murderers must have some measure of cleverness if they mean to get away with it, apostates make for tremendous company at parties, despots have a positively devastating charisma, and, I am assured by the highest authority, which is to say, Lord Aphorism and his Merry Band of Proverbials, that there is some honor amongst thieves. No, Samaritiana was merely humorless, witless, provincial, petty, small of mind, parched of imagination, stingy of wallet and affection, morally conservative, and incapable, to the last drop of her ruby blood, of admitting that she did not know everything in all the starry spheres and wheeling orbits of existence, and this whilst believing herself to possess all of these that are virtues and eschew all that are sins. Can you envisage a more wretched and unloveable beast?

  I married her, naturally.

  The Dogaressa came to me in a black resin mask and emerald hooded cloak when the plague had only lately checked into its waterfront rooms, sent for a litter, and commenced seeing the sights of Venice with its traveling hat and trusted map.

  Oh, no, no, you misapprehend my phraseology. Not that plague. Not that grave and gorgeous darkl
ing shadow that falls over Europe once a century and reminds us that what dwells within our bodies is not a soul but a stinking ruin of fluid and marrow and bile. The other plague, the one that sneaks on nimbly putrefying feet from bedroom to bedroom, from dockside to dinner party, from brothel to marital bower, leaving chancres like kisses too long remembered. Yes, we would have to wait years yet before Baron von Bubœ mounted his much-anticipated revival on the stage, but never you fear, Dame Syphilis was dancing down the dawn, and in those days, her viols never stopped nor slowed.

  That mysterious, morbid, nigh-monstrous and tangerine-scented creature called Samaritiana darkened my door one evening in April, bid me draw close all my curtains, light only a modest lantern upon a pretty lacquered table inlaid with mother of pearl which I still possess to this day, and stand some distance away while she removed her onyx mask to reveal a face of such surpassing radiance, such unparalleled winsomeness, that even the absence of the left eye, and the mass of scars and weals that had long since replaced it, could do no more than render her enchanting rather than perfect.

  It would seem that the Dogaressa danced with the Dame some years past. Her husband, the Doge, brought her to the ball, she claimed, having learned the steps from his underaged Neapolitan mistress, though, as I became much acquainted with the lady in later years, I rather suspect she found her own way, arrived first, wore through three pairs of shoes, departed last, and ate all the cakes on the sideboard. But, as is far too often the case in this life ironical, that mean and miserly soul found itself in receipt of, not only the beauty of a better woman, but the good fortune of a better man. She contracted a high fever owing to her insistence upon hosting the Christmas feast out of doors that year, so that the gathered noblility could see how lovely she looked with a high winter’s blush on her cheeks, and this fever seemed to have driven, by some idiot insensate alchemy, the Dame from the halls of Samaritiana forever, leaving only her eye ravaged and boiled away by the waltz.

  All was well in the world, then, save that she could not show herself in public without derision and her husband still rotted on his throne with a golden nose hung on his mouldering face like a door knocker, but she had not come for his sake, nor would she ever dream of fancying that it was possible to ask a boon of that oft-rumored wizard hiding in the sty of London for any single soul on earth other than herself.

  “I have heard that you can make a new eye,” said she, in dulcet tones she did not deserve the ability to produce.

  I could.

  “Better than the old, brighter, of any color or shape?”

  I could.

  She licked her lily lips. “And install it so well none would suspect the exchange?”

  Perhaps not quite, not entirely so well, but it never behooves one to admit weakness to a one-eyed queen.

  “You have already done me this service,” said she to me, loftily, never asking once, only demanding, presuming, crushing all resistance, not to mention dignity, custom, the basest element of courtesy, beneath her silver-tooled heel. She waved her hand as though the motion of her fingers could destroy all protestation. The light of my lantern caught on a ring of peridot and tourmaline entwined into the shape of a rather maudlin-looking crocodile gnawing upon its own tail, for she claimed some murky Egyptian blood in the dregs of her familial cup, as though such little droplets could mark her as exceptional, when every dockside lady secretly fancies herself a Cleopatra of the Thames.

  “Produce the results upon the morrow! I will pay you nothing, of course. A Dogaressa does not stoop to exchange currency for goods. But when two eyes look out from beneath my brow once more, I will present you with a gift, for no particular reason other than that I wish to bestow it.”

  “And if I do not like your gift, Clarissima?”

  Puzzlement contorted her exquisitely Cyclopean visage, causing a most unwelcome familial pang within my breast. “I do not take your meaning, Master Peek. How could such a thing possibly occur?”

  There is, it seems, a glittering point beyond which egotism achieves such purity that it becomes innocence, and that was the country in which Samaritiana lived. In truth, had she revealed her gift to me then, or even promised payment in the usual manner, I might have refused her, just to experience the novel emotion of rejecting royalty—for I am interested in nothing so much as novelty, not love nor death nor glass nor gold. Something new! Something new! My kingdom for something new! But she caught me, the perfumed spider, wholly without knowing what she’d done. I did indeed take up her commission, and though you may conclude in advance that this recounting of the job will proceed according to the pattern of the last, I shall be disappointed if you do, for I have already told you most vividly that herein lies the skew of my tale.

  For the sake of the beautiful Dogaressa, I took up my father’s battered old pipe and punty. I cannot now say why; for a certainty I owned better instruments by far, and had not touched the things in eons except to brush them daintily with a daily sneer. Perhaps a paroxysm of sentimentality seized me; perhaps I despised her too much even then to waste my finer appliances on her pox-punched face, in any event, I cannot even say positively that the result blossomed forth from the tools and not some other cause, and I fear to question it now. I sank into the rhythm of my father and grandfather and his before him: the dollop of liquid glass, the greatbreath of my own lungs expelled through the long, black pipe, the sweet pressure and rolling of the globule against the smooth marver stone, the uncommon light known only to workers of glass, that strange slick of marmalade-light afire within crystal that would soon ride a woman’s skull all the way through the days of her life and down into her tomb.

  The work was done; I fashioned two, an exquisitely matched pair, in case the other organ required replacement in the unseen feverish future. Samaritiana, in, so far as I may know or tell, the sole creative decision of her existence, chose not one color for the iris but all of them, dozens of infinitesimal shards chipped from every jewel in my inventory: sapphire, jade, emerald, jasper, onyx, amethyst, ruby, topaz. The effect was a carnival wheel of deep, unsettling fascination, and when I sewed it into her flesh with my golden thread she did not wail or struggle but only sighed, as though lost in the act of love, and, though her faults were called Legion, they were as yet unknown to me, thus, as my needle entered her, so too did my fatal softening begin.

  The Dogaressa departed with her stitching still fresh, leaving in her wake but three souvenirs of our intimate surgery: one gift she intended, one she did not, and her damnable scent, which neither Mrs. Matterfact nor Mr. Suchandsuch, no matter how they scrubbed and strove, could remove from the premises. I daresay, even this very night, should you venture to my old house on the High Street and press your nose to its sturdy bones, still yet you would snatch a whiff of tangerine and strangling ivy from the foundation stones.

  The gift she intended to leave was a lock of her raven hair, the skinflint bitch. The other, I did not perceive until some weeks later, when I adjourned to my smoking room with a bottle of brandy, a packet of snuff, and a rare contemplative mood which I intended to spend upon a rich, unfiltered melancholy as sweet as any Madeira—for it is a fact globally acknowledged that idle melancholy, like good wine, is the exclusive purview of the wealthy. To aid in my melancholy, I fingered in one hand the mate to the Dogaressa’s harlequin eye, rubbing my thumb over that strange, motley iris, marveling at the milky sheen of the sclera, admiring, unrepentant Narcissus that I am, my own skill and artistry. I removed my own, ordinary, unguessable, nearly flawless glass eye and held up the other to my empty socket like a spyglass, and a most thoroughly stupendous metamorphosis transpired: I could see through the jeweled lens of that artificial eye! Truly see, without cloud or glare or halo—ah, but what I saw was not the walls of my own smoking room, so tastefully lined with matching books chosen to neither excite nor bore any guest to extremes, but the long peach-cream and gold hall of the palazzo of the Doge in far-distant Venice! The chequered black and white marble floors flo
wed forth in my vision like a houndstooth river; the full and unforgiving moon streamed glaucous through tall slim windows; painted ceilings soared overhead, inlaid with pearl and carnelian and ever-so-slightly greyed with the smoke of a hundred thousand candles burnt over peerless years in that grand corridor. Women and men swept slowly up and down the squares like boats upon some fairy canal, swathed in gowns of viridescent green cross-hatched with silver and rose, armored in bodices of whalebone and opal, be-sailed in lacy gauze spun by Clotho herself upon the wheel of destiny, cloaked and hooded in vermillion damask, in aquamarine, in citron and puce, their clothing each so splendid I could scarce tell the maids from the swains—and thus looked I upon a personal paradise heretofore undreamt of.

  But there were worms in paradise, for each and every beauty in the Doge’s palace was rotting in their finery like the fruit of sun-spoiled melons within their shells. Their flesh putrefied and dripped from their bones and what remained turned hideous, sickening colors, choleric, livid, cyanic, hoary, a moldering patina of death whose effusions stained those bodices black. Some stumbled noseless, others having replaced that appendage with nostrils of gold and silver and crystal and porcelain, and others, all hope lost, sunk their visages into masks, though they could not hide their chancred hands, the bleeding sores of their bosoms, the undead tatters of their throats.

  Yet still they laughed, and spoke animatedly, one to the other, and blushed in virtuous fashion beneath their putridity. Such is the dance of the Dame, who enters through the essential act of life, yet leaves you thinking, breathing, walking whilst the depredations of the grave transact upon your still-sensate flesh, making of this world a single noisy tomb.

  My breath would not obey me; my heart ricocheted amongst my ribs like a cannon misfired. Was it truly Italy I saw bounded in the tiny planet of a glass eye? Had I stumbled into a drunken sleep or gone mad so swiftly no asylum could hope to catch me? I shot to my feet, mashing the eye deeper into my socket until stars spattered my sight—closer, look closer! Could I hear as well? Smell? Taste the tallowed air of that far-off moonlit court?