“Feathers, Sea, Silk, Sky”
by Anna Martino
The last time captain Mathieu Agostini had seen the Sanguinaire Islands, he had been a boy of seven years old holding onto his widowed mother’s hand. There they were, as ageless as the skies: four uneven hills rising from the azure waters, and a white lighthouse gleaming from the winter sun. Following the landscape into the distance, he could make out the contours of the main attraction: Corsica, l’île de beauté to the French, solu innamuratu to his deceased mother.
“Beloved ground” or not, he’d never intended to return to that place. He was stationed in Brest with the Marine Nationale; his wife and children were proud Bretons who only knew Corsica from pictures.
But a letter among his effects clamoured for an answer sunk in the deep waters of his childhood. A young woman in Great Britain, writing to the captain’s mother, was looking for information regarding a ship-builder named René Paoli, who had been murdered in the Gulf of Ajaccio twenty-five years before — September, 1879.
The captain would have given anything not to hear that name again. But he also knew he owed that young woman an answer. Her existence, in a way, had brought him all that he possessed. If it weren’t for those strange occurrences on the harbour, where would he be?
Not in that ship, not married to that bretonne, not wearing that uniform, that’s for certain. No, he’d still be Matteo, to begin with, not Mathieu — a Corsican name trying to hide an unnatural heritage, even when his odd-shaped hands could not.
A year before René Paoli was found dead on the deck of his best ship, supine and encircled by long, black-and-white striped feathers, his chest dilacerated as if pecked by birds of prey, Matteo had been living with his mother in a room behind the kitchen in Paoli’s house on Rue du Roi de Rome. He hadn’t known any other home but that windowless and stuffy corner where he slept, the equally stuffy kitchen where his mother reigned, and the airy room in the front of the house, where Paoli kept all his precious nautical charts.
Usually, when Paoli was in a good mood, he’d invite the boy over to see the charts, but Matteo always replied with the same answer, speaking in Corsican and not in French as he was forced to do in Sunday school and in front of other authorities: “Mamma said I shouldn’t be messing with those, sir.”
Paoli would give him a boiled sweet as a consolation prize and send him on his way, leaving the door open so Matteo could spy on the maps after Paoli left for the docks.
That was the only sort of conversation they had — until one morning Matteo replied to the invitation with, “Madama Aimée said I should know my place.”
“Oh, did she now? And just when did my fiancée talk to you?”
“Two days ago, sir. When the blokes from the dock brought her trousseau. Sir, may I ask you something? Please promise me you won’t tell Mamma.” Paoli nodded. “What’s a fils naturel?”
“Where did you hear that one?”
“Madama asked Mamma whether I was this thing. She said I was going to be sent to the care of the priest, because she didn’t want to live with me under her roof. Mamma was so upset, she cried over her food.”
“And did she say anything else? Go on, Matteo, you know you can tell me.”
“She said… Well… Well, sir, she said something about signorina Viridiana being upset about your bride. That signorina Viridiana, at least, would know better not to offend a vitreous widow.”
“You meant to say a virtuous widow, Matteo, not vitreous. And since you asked, a fils naturel is a child born out of wedlock. That’s why your mamma was so upset, you see.” And then, in sotto voce, he added, “You’re not going anywhere, rest assured. As for signorina Viridiana… I think it’d be smart not to tell my fiancée about her or about her birds, right?” Matteo nodded, in panic. “Now there’s a good boy. There’s a good boy indeed.”
Viridiana Columba was as dark-haired and dark-eyed as any native Corsican woman, but no one knew her family or her native village. It was as if she had sprouted from the ground or descended from a star into that small, whitewashed house down the road that led to Parata, the ancient Genoese tower that marked the end of the land.
On a clear day, you could see the Sanguinaires from her sun-drenched windows, and the gulls dotting the skies looking for food. But when Matteo and his mother came to pick up the signorina’s dirty linens, by orders of René Paoli, it wasn’t the islands that called to the young boy’s attention, nor the gulls in the yard; instead, it was a red kite hawk and the booted eagles, as well as the goshawks and merlins all perched in the blue windowsills, observing their kinfolk with the typical disdain of those that prey to live.
Matteo had been but a child of three the first time he had seen a hawk become a man, with a cloud of white vapour and a sound that reminded him of cards being shuffled. He could still remember how the newly turned creature — tall and dark-skinned, with a white patterned scarf on his head and coral beads around his thick neck — had smiled at him, as if the magic trick wasn’t a big deal. He ran to his mother. Cesira was busy folding the soiled sheets and tucking them into the hampers, while listening to the owner of the house, a voluptuous lady in fine green silk and black lace, her hands hidden in fingerless kid leather gloves.
The birds turned into all sorts of people inside the house: some nut-brown and short-limbed, some with hair like flax and sand-coloured skin, and others as dark as the Moor in the flag of Corsica. They were not fazed by the young lad’s presence in the yard. Quite the opposite: they brought him citrus fruits and called him zitellu — little child, little bird.
“Why do you walk down the road, Cesira? The poor child looks wretched,” one of the men by the window asked, as the widow picked up the hamper. In flight, he was a red kite hawk; on the ground, he had wiry brownish hair and freckles all over his long face. “Wouldn’t it be quicker if you used your wings?”
“You expect me to carry the hamper and the child while flying?”
“You could take the child, and I’ll take the hamper. How about that?”
“Thanks, but no. I don’t want to give more fodder to the washerwomen to munch on.”
“Oh, but you are one silly creature, ain’t you?” Viridiana cackled as she walked into the yard. She looked menacing in spite of her lace shawls, dainty dresses and coral parures. It was her eyes: too deep and too dark, more animal than human; and her hands, always hidden inside fingerless gloves, her fingernails always as sharp as talons, just like his mother’s. “The fellow’s courting you, didn’t you take the hint?”
“Didn’t he see the colour of my dress? Since you’re so keen to gorge on human money, you should teach your crones on human customs.”
“Oh, you’re too fond of these landed creatures,” Viridiana dismissed Cesira with a wave of her gloved hand. “That’s going to be your downfall, you know. You want to walk? Then walk! I’ll see you next week. ”
This conversation didn’t strike Matteo as odd. Nothing in that house ever did. When you grow up surrounded by such magic, it becomes ordinary and unimportant, part of the everyday struggles, like the dirty linen to be washed, the fish guts in the kitchen trash pail, the tempests that unmoored the boats and flooded the streets.
But reality found a way to seep in, showing him why Viridiana and her people lived in hiding.
In those days, strange things happened to the boats of other shipyards: Accidents, robbery, and arson. L’occhju reigned upon the harbour — the “evil eye”, the invisible but very tangible wave of bad luck that frightened ship-owners and the wives of the seafarers. The sailors in attacked ships cursed the fates in many shapes and forms, but also lit candles to the Virgin Mary and Saint Erasme, the patron saint of the Corsican fishermen, for at least they were alive. You could rebuild a ship; you couldn’t rouse the dead.
When other boats caught fire or lost their cargo, Paoli would disappear for the evening and return in the morning with a dumb, sedate smile: the look of a man who had gambled and won more riches than he could do with. And Viridiana later wore brand new silk dresses in her small, makeshift court.
Cesira Agostini, ever the faithful servant, merely brushed her master’s boots and didn’t ask about his whereabouts. Likewise, she never told Paoli that, while he’d been gone, Viridiana’s rogue men had taken shelter in his kitchen.
The young falcons brought pieces of silver and gold to the widow, which she kept hidden inside a carved box under her bed. Matteo also won trinkets from those men: a piece of red coral, a saint’s medal, and shoelaces for his Sunday Mass boots. Cesira then scrubbed the floor until you couldn’t find a speck of dust in the yard — or tell-tale feathers, for that matter.
But it was a useless task, all in all; when Paoli returned home, he never noticed how clean the place was. He slept until dawn, knowing he was on the way to becoming a very important man indeed.
A rich man of the Third Republic, no matter where he lived, needed a wife of proper breeding to consolidate his position. Enter Aimée Cabrel. She was, according to the gossip of the washerwomen, the third daughter of a Marseille ship-builder, growing long in the tooth — “the only sort of person who’d ever marry that fatherless parvenu,” they’d whisper as the happy couple passed by them in their horse-drawn cart. “She won’t last the summer.”
The washerwomen weren’t alone in that line of questioning.
“How does he treat that woman, Cesira?” Viridiana asked one morning, when the Agostini duo came to pick up the linen. Matteo pretended to throw rocks out of the window while listening to the conversation between the two women: noticing how Viridiana couldn’t keep still as she spoke, flexing her fingers and massaging the backs of her hands. Without the gloves, the backs of Viridiana’s hands looked older than their years, with sunspots and welt-like marks running from her fingers down to the wrists.
“What do you expect me to say? He bought the boats he wanted with the money she’s brought into the agreement, so he must be amenable towards her for a while.”
“How am I supposed to know?”
“You’re the one washing their bed sheets, woman, you tell me!” Viridiana hooted. “You’ve been married to one of his kind, you know just how dirty they can become when mating.” Cesira looked behind her: a mother’s conscientiousness about a son maybe listening to such bawdy talk. “Listen, he can be amenable to that pitiful creature as much as he likes. All I’m asking him to remember is why I keep his boats safe and his sailors alive. Paoli and I have an agreement, and I would hate to break it.”
“Yes, you have an agreement, but you don’t expect him to love you, do you?”
“Of course not,” Viridiana cackled. “Humans are unable to love. If your Saveriu hadn’t been drowned, you’d have known that in time.”
Matteo knew even then his mother had been deeply offended by that comment. What he didn’t know was why his mother didn’t reply. It was as if she was biding her time.
Try as he might, Captain Mathieu now couldn’t produce a decent picture of Aimée in his mind. He could only remember how wisp-thin and bone-white she had been, especially when compared with her dark-haired, barrel-chested, and sun-tanned husband. What he remembered was how happy Paoli had been in those early days, how the house smelled of expensive perfume and pressed linen, of fresh flowers and poudre de riz. Cesira had to take his suits and undergarments to a more skilled washerwoman, one who knew to deal with English wool and German silk.
It was a lovely time. And it faded fast.
In the beginning of the winter, one of Paoli’s boats was attacked just off the coast of the Gulf of Ajaccio. Not a big financial blow for the ship-owner — by now he had a large fleet, one of the largest in the city — but a sign that not even he was immune to l’occhju.
He paid for the priest to give mass at his parish in thanksgiving for the spared lives of his sailors, but after two weeks, it was clear that Saint Erasme wasn’t listening to his pleas. The arsonists now favoured his boats, and the money began to dissipate, along with what thin respect he had earned with the city’s ship-builders and ship-owners.
In private, he lashed out at Cesira, while her son pretended to be asleep at the corner of the room. Their fights were strange, almost mute. Years later, Mathieu understood that this was because, upstairs, Madama Aimée slept in bouts of pain, saying strange birds were spying on her at all hours. Now he knew, too, what the blood on the bed sheets and the straw of the mattresses meant, and also the visits from those strange men that had greeted Paoli so seriously.
A man that loses all he’s gambled can only gamble more. And so, one night, Paoli left his house in a hurry, just like he used to do when he was single. He wasn’t wearing his finery; he wasn’t out for a night in town. He was going to settle debts, he said, as he prepared to trudge along the cold mud of the roads on the moonlit road to Parata.
The following morning, the master of the house was back to his duties, looking the worse for wear, a haunted look in his eyes.
But, the attacks on his boats ended.
Two months later, Cesira was cleaning the oven when a peregrine falcon flew inside the kitchen, beating its wings against the low ceiling. It was a tiercel, the male of the species, with glorious slate-grey wings and yolk-yellow beak. Matteo saw how his mother looked worried, picking up the bird as if it were a sparrow and leaving it in the courtyard.
The next moment, the sound of the shuffling cards could be heard and a tall, haggard man stood before mother and son. He looked like a corsair down on his luck, his black mane all matted and his hands marred with chilblains. “Amadeo Columba,” she whispered, afraid Madama Aimée would hear them at the front parlour.
“Cesira Agostini. It’s been a while.” The stranger then turned to Matteo. “Why, what a beautiful fledgling! Matteo, is that it? Last time I saw you, you were such a small baby, it looked like you had disappeared inside the blankets.”
“What do you want from me?” Cesira didn’t seem inclined to small talk; she moved as if cleaning the oven was a life-threatening quest she should return to as quickly as possible.
“Ah, well, now there’s a very interesting question. What do I want? I want this occhju to end. Aren’t they just precious, those humans? Blaming a deliberate attack on the whims of the spirits? I’m sure you’ve heard about it. Harassment. Blackmailing. Random attacks on boats that still float, which is very much against our credo…”
“Cut the dramatics. Why show up only now? It’s been going on for a while.”
“Because while it was just a bit of prank, the elders turned the blind eye. Every falcon’s done its fair share of shenanigans, you and I included. Your shenanigans led you to this fledgling. Mine, on the other hand, led me as far as possible from these noxious creatures. But those are harmless things. However, to set fire on boats? Maim living humans? No, no. This compromises our position.”
“Your position. I bet the elders thought you were being lenient on purpose. Thought you were getting a cut from your sister’s profits, perhaps?”
“I am here,” Amadeo straightened his shoulders, pretending he hadn’t heard the widow’s last insinuation, “because the sailors have mentioned that the only shipyard that didn’t get into trouble with the occhju belonged to René Paoli. Now, that name rang a bell, as the humans say. René Paoli, the business associate of your man Saveriu. I almost wished you were the one causing all this trouble. It’d be justified, I thought. She’s taking her revenge. But when they described the woman orchestrating the brawls… Oh, well. I should have drowned her when I had the chance.”
“No offense, Amadeo, but you never had what it takes for that sort of thing. Now, I’ll repeat myself one last time: what do you want from me?”
“I need witnesses. I have orders to take her back to the Sanguinaires, come hell or high water. This little joke of hers has gone too far. And you will help me get her back, Cesira. Or shall I have to drag you?”
“You don’t have what it takes,” she repeated as she moved towards him. Amadeo took a step back, clearly affected by the sharp, graphite-coloured talons sprouting from the widow’s calloused hands. “Remember, I don’t take orders from you, little chick. If you need my help, you say please.”
“Does that female say please when she bosses you around?” Amadeo pointed to the window above them.
“She does. And so does Paoli. They can’t find their way out of their bedroom if I’m not around to tell them where the pissing pot is. Now, let’s try again, shall we, Columba? What do you want?”
“Please take me to my sister’s house, Madama Agostini,” Amadeo spoke through clenched teeth and clenched fists. “If you’d be so kind as to help me?”
Matteo never thought he’d be terrified of that whitewashed house, but such was the moment. Feathers everywhere — russet, grey, white and silver, all scattered over the stony floor and showing hasty attempts at escaping. The specks of blood on the patio walls, and the marks of sharp talons against the wooden window-frames, showed that the effort hadn’t been successful.
At the windows now were men and women wearing shabby clothes and colourful headdresses, with sharp talons and prominent cheekbones, all looking at him with barely contained disgust. When Cesira passed by them, one of the women hissed while the others laughed. Cesira stopped and clawed the woman’s face, dropping her to the ground. Matteo screamed, the other guards took a step back, and Amadeo ran to stop the confusion, turning to the woman who held her bruised face in her hand, “Now, now, behave! There’s a zitellu in here, watch your tongue. Now, where is my dear sister? Did she put up a fight?”
“Of course she didn’t. She’s not in a condition to do so.”
That’s how Amadeo and Cesira discovered just how far the “little joke” had gone. Viridiana waited for them in her bedroom, sat by the four-poster bed René Paoli had given her at the beginning of their acquaintance. Matteo had always loved the carved headboard, showing Leda and the Swan in a loving embrace — too young to know what the picture meant, especially in such an environment.
Captain Mathieu had forgotten how Viridiana announced the news, though he wouldn’t ever forget the haughty look on her face — as if she was expecting the child of the disgraced Emperor Napoléon III rather than a half-landed baby by an Ajaccio ship-owner.
And he hadn’t forgotten how Amadeo had grabbed his sister by the shoulders, talons drawing blood, ruining the moiré silk of her dress as he screamed loud enough for the windows to rattle. “It’s not like he’ll have his heirs with that porcelain trinket!” Viridiana screamed back. She looked much younger than her years at that moment, a small child who’d been caught stealing sweets from the pantry. “Cesira, you know what’s going on with me,” Viridiana pleaded. “You have your fledgling. What do I get? For all my troubles, for all I did, what do I get? Another woman is reaping the fruits of my work!”
“Your work? He’s fooled you into helping him!” Amadeo screamed. “And more fool you if you think he’ll love you for this child! He’ll get rid of it as soon as he can!”
The little boy only realized what the look on Viridiana’s face meant many years after. Her world had shifted on its axis; the serpent of doubt had entered the heavenly garden, as the priest said in Sunday school. Amadeo noticed that, and pounced. “Tell her, Cesira. Tell her what’s her fate if she stays here, living in their land. They snatch mongrel zitelli away and send them to the yards of their priests, never to be seen again! Mongrels like him, skyless and groundless, they are not loved nor wanted. They are cannon fodder, food for priests and charlatans. Come back home, sister. I’ll take care of the child as if it were my own. It’ll be one of ours, anyway, more than it’ll ever be one of them,” Amadeo stopped, making an effort to speak in an even-keeled voice as he trembled. “I speak out of love for you. The more you try to grab, the more it’ll slip through your talons. I’ll forgive your haughtiness; it was just a fancy, wasn’t it? We’re all entitled to that once. But come. That human will only break your spine if you stay.”
“If he breaks my spine, brother dear, then rest assured I’ll eat his heart!”
Matteo ran away when he saw the talons tearing through Viridiana’s gloves, the way her face turned dark in a second. He couldn’t remember his mother following him, or when she caught up with him. He felt as if he were flying away, leaving the ground, leaving that world. Such an exhilarating sensation, in spite of his fear: his muscles trembling with a tension like the string of a kite being sent up in the air.
When he noticed, he was back in his home, the stuffy bedroom reeking of cooking oil, tallow candles, and fish guts that had been his safe harbour all those years. He had been tucked in bed, his hands bound with cloth that smelled of camphor: he must have fainted somewhere down the road and hurt himself on the fall. He couldn’t remember. To this day, almost three decades on, he couldn’t remember what had happened to him on the way back to Ajaccio.
As he moved in his bed, though, he heard a conversation from the back of the house. He recognised Amadeo Columba’s voice. Tiptoeing down the corridor, he could make out the words in Corsican: “…you are raising him human. Of course that would end badly. He’s gonna blow up like a firework display if you don’t teach him right. I can do that.”
“And then I’d owe you. That’s the last thing I want.”
“Listen, you’ll either owe me or you’ll owe Paoli… Best if it were me,” Amadeo stopped, sounding out of breath. “You said this man didn’t consent to the mating.”
“He never told me. I never asked. But I’ve seen the look on his face. Say what you will, Paoli actually loves his wife, and to betray her… to produce another bastard… and with a monster!” Amadeo laughed, but Cesira didn’t join in. “That’s how he sees me,” she continued. “That’s how he sees her. Monsters. Useful monsters, with passable human looks, but monsters just the same.”
“So, no love involved in the conjuring.”
“Not from him, no. And if you ask me, not from her either. Your sister doesn’t want love. She wants adoration. And that unmoors the mind. Because once you are revered, where does the sacrificing stop?”
“Well, help me stop this madness, then,” Amadeo replied. “We can spare this child a lifetime of grief as Viridiana’s pawn. And we can make Matteo the man his father always dreamed of. What do you say?”
“What is your plan?”
And then Matteo drowsed once more, the memory dissolving like sea spray.
Matteo had seen women having babies before. It wasn’t pretty, and it didn’t always end well, but most of the time it was a relatively quick affair and there was always a franc or two to be made in the process of alerting relatives about the event — more if he came ‘round announcing the healthy birth of a boy.
But nothing had prepared him for what happened to Viridiana. The memory still reeked: the strong smell of zinc from the soiled bed sheets, the contorted creature sat down at the edge of the mattress pushing down the egg from outside her body. To give birth to a half-human child was a difficult task in itself; the fact that nobody came to aid Viridiana made it harder. Cesira was there because Amadeo had dragged her into the house; years later, the widow would tell her son that their leader had wanted a witness, not a sage femme to aid his sister in her hour of need.
Years later, Matteo — then Mathieu — compared that morning with the night his wife gave birth to their first child, and the more he thought about it, the more disgusted he grew with the vivid memory of Viridiana left bleeding, disoriented and alone, while Cesira took the screaming child to the next room.
“A girl,” she said to Amadeo.
“Could be worse,” he replied. “It looks like her. Come, Cesira, give me this poor zitella and let’s get this over and done with.”
Cesira handed him the bundle of blankets. Matteo could swear he saw tears in Amadeo Columba’s eyes. He knew how to hold infants very well; at the same time, he looked terrified of that small child with stumps of talons on her diminute hands, and a face that changed from human to sky-like in a second. “Go before she wakes up,” Cesira said. “Go before you change your mind.”
Was that what she had said? Or was it “go before I change my mind?”
Either way, Amadeo turned into a peregrine falcon, the baby turned into prey in his talons, and out he went. And Cesira… Mathieu wanted so much to recall her as a nurturing person, as someone who had taken care of Viridiana in her hour of need. But no, she’d left, pulling her son by the hand down the white dust road, as if it were an ordinary washing day.
Matteo knew after that exchange that the winged nation would leave Viridiana to die, as punishment for conjuring a child outside of a proper agreement, if not also for the prior robberies or the crime syndicate. But Cesira must have learned something with Saveriu, because she couldn’t bear to leave the signorina on her own for long.
Meanwhile, the house had been truly deserted — no more visitors to the backyard, no more pieces of silver or shoelaces from the winged corsairs. For weeks, Cesira and Matteo waited on tiptoe for any sign of trouble at the harbour, but the hawks, seeing what had happened to those who associated themselves with Viridiana, didn’t bother the sailing vessels anymore. L’occhju was gone, and the priests gladly gave Saint Erasmus credit for the peace in Ajaccio Harbour.
While the te deum sounded in the city, Cesira divided herself in two, attending to Viridiana at the road to Parata the same way she attended to Madama Aimée at Rue du Roi de Rome. Both women seemed to be fading before the widow’s eyes, one into black and the other into white — one consumed by grief, the other by malaria. Viridiana, at least, healed over time. Soon she was strong enough to leave her bed, and dress on her own. But it wasn’t as if she wanted to do either. There was a shadow in all her actions, dragging her to the ground, marring her thoughts as she tried to speak.
Captain Mathieu, years on, at last understood the weight of that shadow. If he’d lost one of his own children, he’d be shackled to the ground as well.
Malaria took the weak Aimée Paoli née Cabral in the end. At least, that was what Matteo remembered. Cesira told him she had been sorry about it. Granted, madama never once showed an ounce of care for anyone but herself, but the widow was sorry for Paoli and for the world that hadn’t come to pass: the wispy children never to materialize.
Mathieu didn’t recall madama’s funeral rites. But Lord, did he ever recall Viridiana’s smile when Cesira told her the news. “Oh, good! I suppose he will want to see me now,” she told the widow. “I just need a new dress. Tell him to send it straight away, won’t you? It doesn’t need to be in silk. Printed cotton will do for now. And I need new combs for my hair.”
“Combs for your hair,” Cesira repeated. “A new dress? Viridiana, what in the waters…”
“His ships depend on my protection. I can always rouse new birds. I’m still a Columba! I lost my child, but I didn’t lose my wits!” Cesira didn’t answer, and Viridiana prodded her. “What’s the matter, now? The gulls got your tongue? I must start anew. I’ll build my court again. Perhaps I’ll find myself a sailor, like you did — I bet a sailor wouldn’t murder a baby. Your sailor didn’t murder your son.” Viridiana tried to laugh it off, but it sounded too hollow. “But then, yours was a son. If I had given birth to a son…”
Cesira stepped aside, watching how the lady lost her breath. The childbed had taken more from her than Viridiana would ever admit — but that was only normal; it happened to all women of the winged world when they mated with humans. Mathieu remembered that with apprehension when he courted his own wife: was he condemning the love of his life to that gruesome fate, too?
And yet, his wife survived three pregnancies. Perhaps it was Paoli’s blood that had weakened the two women. Mathieu knew now what it was to be a man, and the poison that one could carry from bed to bed, as well as from sky to ground and back again. But those were just the conjectures of a grown-up capitaine de vaisseau who didn’t want to remember what had happened next; a man who didn’t want to dwell upon the last week of August 1878, when his mother returned from Parata to the empty house at Rue du Roi de Rome.
She had settled him in bed, as she always did, but he didn’t stay there. Instead, in a flight of youthful restlessness, he’d slipped behind the front parlour door to snoop.
That night, he remembered well: the way Paoli placed his maps on a canvas bag; the way his finery was draped over a chair, as if ready to be packed up at any moment; how his best leather boots had been polished and waited at the doorway. “Are you going anywhere, sir?” Cesira had asked.
“I’m bound to Palermo at dawn. I have business to attend to. I have orders for you. I need you to pack all the things that belonged to Aimée and post them to her family in Marseille. Spare no expense. Don’t pack the jewels, though. Those you can leave behind. They will be useful.”
“Useful to whom?”
Paoli took a deep breath before replying. “You understand, don’t you, Cesira? I loved Aimée more than I thought possible, but I cannot… I cannot let that consume me. I must think of my future. And I… I was wondering, you see… He’s such a smart boy, your Matteo. And he already knows how to read and write, in spite of his hands. He could work as a messenger at the shipyard. It’d give him a proper use for those wings — he’d get many tips, don’t you think? Many smart men on my payroll didn’t go to school. Then, later, if he shows any —”
“A messenger,” Cesira interrupted her boss, the word burning her lips. “My son, the son of your best friend, the son of the man that brought you to Viridiana Columba…”
“Don’t mention the name of that hag! She’s only caused me grief. She’s cursed my family and my name, that strega!”
“She made your fortune!”
“I made my own fortune. I made my own name, and don’t you dare ever put that in doubt. Understand, Cesira, that if I send Matteo to school just like that, and now of all possible moments, people will think I’m appeasing you. That I’m caving from guilt, because Aimée died. Saveriu would never forgive me if the world treated his son as a bastard. I know you’ll understand if plans must be delayed for a while.” Paoli finished packing. “Chin up, woman. At least this one speaks Italian… You will understand each other better. And she’s of stronger stock than Aimée. God willing, you will have many children to mind under this roof.”
Matteo ran back to the room. Whether his mother noticed or not, he couldn’t recall. All he remembered was that she didn’t say a word when she returned; she just pointed to his clothes at the peg at the door, while she started to pack a carpetbag with her few belongings and the contents of the box hidden under the bed.
For years, Matteo tried to remember what happened next, but couldn’t separate fact from fiction — what had truly occurred and what he had inferred in order to make a full story in his head. He remembered… leaving the house at Rue du Roi de Rome before sunrise; and seeing himself at the Parata Tower, where sea and land meet. And he remembered how Amadeo and his people had come to his mother’s aid: a long line of falcons and hawks turning into men and women in mid-air, floating like angels until they touched down on the sand. Of course, he couldn’t remember being turned into prey and carried towards the Sanguinaires; no one is supposed to remember that magic: only the shoulder pain from being lifted up and taken away.
He remembered the immense brick house and its shaded inner patio, and the children that had run towards him and stared at him as something rare: the son of a human with a winged creature. This was the territory of the old tribe, the place that Viridiana had run from when her brother was anointed leader instead of her; the place that Cesira had left for the love of a dark-haired sailor. A four-storey house built like an abbey or prison, under the shade of olive trees and low shrubbery, invisible to the human eye… It should have been beautiful but Matteo, raised among humans, could only cling in fear to his mother’s skirts as she spoke to Amadeo, and to older men and women who carried coral beads and gold chains on their long necks, and who wore sashes and pearl earrings as well.
Truth be told, though, Cesira wasn’t talking. She was screaming blue murder, loud enough to be heard by God on His golden throne. The contents of those screams, Matteo had blotted out. The consequences, however, were still fresh in his mind years later: How René Paoli didn’t arrive at Palermo to collect his new bride. How, instead, he’d been met by the cook on the deck of his best ship, while the rest of his sailors were taken away from him by birds of prey of every shape and colour, littering the blue sky above him.
And then… what? All the remaining years of his childhood, Matteo had tried to reimagine the scene, based on what the other falcons told him. Yes, his mother had struck Paoli first; she had been given the right, since she’d been the one with the greatest grievances towards him. But had Cesira Agostini, so small and so thin, really turned into a hen harrier in front of her former boss, and had she really broken that man’s ribcage with her talons and beak? Had she ripped his heart from his chest and pecked out his eyes? Had she really spit on his flowing blood for Viridiana, for Aimée, for Saveriu, for all the others? Had she really dragged his body down in front of all the others, cursing his cadaver to rot in the sun? Had she really ordered them to break his arms and legs, to rip his throat? His mother had done that? His pious, devout, lovely mother?
He remembered how she had returned to that invisible house on the Sanguinaires carrying Paoli’s leather satchel, and how she had handed her son the nautical charts, saying “those were your father’s, now they are yours.” He remembered when she’d thrown Paoli’s remaining finery at Amadeo’s feet.
But that was all. That evening (or the evening after? God, what he wouldn’t give to recall!), they had all flown from the Sanguinaires towards Bonifacio, a port in the South of Corsica where they were unknown to humans. Matteo still remembered the jingling inside his mother’s travelling bag, and the colour of the coral and gold jewellery hidden among the black dresses — the jewels that would pay for his education and later send him to naval school in Brest, as far as possible from the solu innamoratu.
Cesira remained a virtuous widow until her end, in black costume and veils. And so, when that letter finally arrived, it was too late for her to reveal anything else about these preceding events: she’d died ten years before a young woman in Britain found out who she was.
Mathieu didn’t need a boat to reach the lighthouse at the main island of the Sanguinaires. He knew how to manage his inheritance by now, and how to glide unseen in hen harrier’s wings down the coast towards the edge of his mother’s native soil. It wasn’t something he did often, but he wouldn’t be able to reach his destination any other way.
The place hadn’t changed much from what he remembered: the same sun-bleached stones, the olive trees and the low shrubs, the people coming and going to hunt in human lands. One of the old falcons received the visitor at the doorway. Matteo remembered the man: it was the skinny lad that had once offered to carry Cesira’s hamper at Parata. He still had the freckles, but his hair was all but gone. Scars ran down his face, from eyebrow to chin, and one of his arms hung limp by his side.
This man took Matteo to Isolotto, one of the islands in the archipelago. There, on bare stone, invisible to human eyes, the winged people had built a bungalow with whitewashed walls and cobalt blue windows, almost like the house at the road to Parata. There were only a sort of front parlour and a bedroom. Matteo recognised the furniture; it had been taken from the house where Viridiana Columba had once reigned.
And there she was, under the green canopy of the four-poster bed that René Paoli had once bought her. Her hair was still thick and long, though now all white; she looked frail and tired, her shrivelled hands bound with linen strips. “Or else she’ll hurt herself — she doesn’t know how to retract the talons anymore,” the falcon explained. “She doesn’t know day from night, man from woman.”
“Why is she here?”
“The elders thought it would be for the best, sir. The day after her lover was executed… Well, sir, she went berserk. They couldn’t leave her there, but they couldn’t bring her to the house either. She could hurt the others, you see.”
“Saveriu,” the lady’s eyes glimmered when she spotted Mathieu in the front room. “Oh, my dear Saveriu. You came back! How long has it been?”
“It’s been long enough,” Mathieu forced a smile that went unnoticed by Viridiana.
“So long, and it’s so lonely in here. I wonder if she thinks about me.”
“My daughter. These gulls,” she pointed to the doorway, “they said she’s dead. She isn’t. She’ll come back to me. Amadeo separated me from my daughter, you see. He struck a deal with the humans. And the humans took his child. He drowned, don’t you know? Drowned! Just like Amadeo always wanted to do with me. Oh, did Cesira send for my combs? She said she would. You should beware of Cesira. Do you know what she did to your mate? Clawed his eyes out! She did it and brought me his coat. Oh, the state of his coat…”
Now, from the new height and the years that he brought to this haunted room, Mathieu remembered everything. How they had brought Viridiana to the invisible house at the Sanguinaires, Cesira and the falcons. How Cesira had thrown the coat at Viridiana’s feet. This is how you do it, his mother had said. This is how you eat their hearts when they betray you.
Those screams he recalled… they hadn’t come from his mother. They had come from Viridiana, when she realized that René had been murdered.
“She is wicked, your Cesira. She’s cunning. You love her, though, don’t you? You like it sassy.” And she cackled the way Mathieu remembered. “Oh, you do, don’t you? That’s why Paoli drowned you! You gave me to him, like I was a jug or a pebble, but it was Cesira he always wanted. Oh, she was more of a falcon than I’d ever be. Why didn’t they give my daughter to her? Why did Amadeo kill the baby?”
Mathieu stared at his own hands, more human than ever, and took a deep breath before taking two objects from his coat pocket. A tortoiseshell comb, dulled with age, paired with a letter by a young lady who had been raised first in Bastia, on the northern side of Corsica, and then with nuns in Marseille, before being sent to London to be the governess for an English family — where she had somehow been able to trace her roots back to Ajaccio, only to find her blood father’s death the subject of much speculation and scandal.
The young woman hadn’t asked about her mother in the letter. In fact, she inferred that her mother was a whore or a washerwoman, discarded by the human male who had pounced on her. Instead, she asked about the disease that was crippling her hands and making her dizzy when she walked too fast — did it run in the family? Could anyone give advice of what was happening to her? Why did her mind wander towards the skies? Could Mrs Agostini please inform her if her father suffered from that abnormality?
Mathieu was the only person who knew the whole story. But what good would that do now? The young lady in Britain didn’t want a mother; she merely wanted a cure, and would probably be repulsed with the truth — the way Mathieu’s Breton wife would have been repulsed if she’d known whom she’d married. Her existence couldn’t repair what Cesira had broken — what Paoli had broken, and what Amadeo and Viridiana herself had broken. What terrible peace had at last been bought by their actions, Matteo now had to carry with him until the end.
He handed Viridiana the hair comb, and kept the letter to himself.
Anna Martino is a writer and editor from São Paulo (Brazil), publishing in English and in Portuguese. In addition to her writing career, she also runs Dame Blanche, a small press focused on Brazilian SFF. You can find her work at annamartino.com. She’s also on Twitter as @annadixit.