The sun was disappearing behind the slender cypress trees, standing proudly on the hilltop. All was quiet but for the chant of cigallas. In the distance, the shriek of a woman echoed through the hills, followed by the cry of a baby. In a bare, badly lit one room stone cottage, a mother was holding her long-awaited son. For years, Vittoria Mancini had begged God to give her, and Benitto, a male heir but each of her six pregnancies had produced the burden of another daughter. This time, however, God had been kind. She had made sure of that.
Little Horacio grew up surrounded by matriarchal love. Now in his twenties, he was a slender young man with an angelic face, like those adorning the Sisteen Chapel. Since the boy’s condition, developed in his teens, Mama had become even more protective of her offspring and each morning, Horacio, in the darkness of his candlelit chamber and hidden from the rest of the family by a faded linen drape, bandaged his torso to cover the wounds that would never heal. His weak body was unsuited for a life as a labourer and the landowner’s wagon which came o the village each day often left him behind.
Horacio, however, rarely went home empty- handed and on this sunny morning, he was striding to the castello to sell the game he had skilfully snared. The kitchen would be bustling at this time of day and the opulent Maria would serve him one of her succulent feasts. Lost in his thoughts, Horacio hardly saw the elegant silhouette approaching him. Her body was statuesque and her demeanour proud. Her olive skin was soft and the sun cast a halo over her chestnut hair. Her dark almond eyes were looking at him insistently.
Contadini boy, shouted Contessa di Parigi furiously, I shall have you torn to pieces by my hounds for trespassing”. “Seniorina, muttered the frightened boy, please accept the apologies of your humble servant. I have caught this meaty game and thought that your kitchen hand, might want to cook it for your supper”. “If that is the case, boy, run along and be quick”. Horacio, delighted to have escaped unhurt, hurried to the kitchen. For a moment, the Contessa stared at the boy and the vision of this cherubic vulnerable young face stirred something inside her.
Brushing away this thought, she hastily walked towards the house and withdrew to her chamber. When Horacio arrived back at the cottage, his mother said that the Contessa had sent a messenger and that he, Horacio, was to start work as a stable boy the morrow. Early the following morning, the young man strolled to the castle. For months, Horacio enjoyed daily encounters with the Contessa and slowly became her closest confidante. She liked to reminisce of her time at the Medici’s court and recount the delights of a new art form called opera.
She said that those spectacles were so powerful hat it made her soul weep with passion and sorrow. Horacio enjoyed her lengthy accounts and imagined that she was one of those cantata singers. He too felt inside a depth of emotion which tormented his being. He knew, however, that his passion would never be consummated and that the Contessa would never bear his children. Peasants married their own and Horacio could not endure the thought of his family being ostracised because of him. Moreover, the plain earthy Olivia Costello had been promised to him since she was fifteen.
But he knew that those were not he only reasons for his torment! It was at night that his demons haunted him most. When he laid in his plank bed, it was not the banal events of the day which enfolded in his mind, but the soft visage and perfectly rounded shoulders and breasts of her beloved which tortured his soul. His heart pounded and his chest burned at the mere thought of her skin brushing against his; his stomach churned and a sense of bottomless darkness and despair invaded his being at the thought of losing her. Some night, the tormenting pain would ease and she would only stay for a while.
Other times, her presence would be so real, overpowering and oppressive that he had to hid beneath the covers and cry himself to sleep, only to wake up in the morning, exhausted and filled with a nauseous guilt. One night, the apparition had been particularly vivid and Horacio had seemed absent all day. On his way home, he picked a handful of hemlock from the path. At the cottage, he brewed and drank a cup of herbal tea before going to bed. When his mother returned, she found him peacefully asleep, fully dressed in his best clothes, his white angelic face whiter than his heets, his entwined hands holding a rosary.
Soon the news of Horacio’s passing reached the village and a flock of wailing black shadows scurried to Vittoria’s house. It was said that the poor, emaciated Horacio had died from his condition. When the women eventually reached the cottage, they were told that the grief-stricken Vittoria wanted to be alone. Behind the closed door, the tired woman drew the faded curtains, covered the half-broken mirror and stopped the mantelpiece clock. She took the holy water out of the cupboard, poured it into a bowl and placed it at Horacio’s bedside.
She went into the garden and picked a bunch of palm which she carefully placed into the bowl. Finally, she started laying Horacio out. She loosened his collar and unbuttoned his shirt, thus revealing the trussed chest. She started unfolding the bandage and two white child-like, soft milky breasts, atrophied by Horacio’s daily ritual, appeared and reminded Vittoria of the mortal sin she had committed. God had not answered her prayers after all and she, Vittoria Mancini, had dared to change destiny’s course. For this, she and poor Horacio would be damned and burn in hell for eternity.