Saint Fire (Secret Books of Venus Series) (2 page)

BOOK: Saint Fire (Secret Books of Venus Series)
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“And anger is also a sin, Luchita. Especially when directed at Heaven.”

She wanted to hurl the money in his face. Afterall, the pig would have
drunk it in a dozen days. But she held her hand down. Her brother had done his best, in his pure and remote manner. (Heartless.) And whatever he said, he was the most, the only powerful man she knew.

After he had gone, some tears ran from her eyes.

She rubbed them away and went out into the inn to serve, singing.

His house stood on the Canal of Seven Keys, a mixed blessing. In deep winter, if it froze, you could cross it or walk along it, on foot. In summer, it matured, and dead dogs, even men, sailed up and down with the tides. The house itself, fixed firm between two others, was peculiar in that the walls were of a dark red. Ghaio’s Red House, locals called it.

Over the door hung his sign, painted with a bundle of wood tied by a cord of gold: wood-seller. The gold had faded on the sign. But only there. Ghaio, as several suspected, was wealthy. He owned three houses, the two on either side his own, and one further along, and took rents from the occupants, although sometimes only in wrung-neck chickens, or other flesh, female and alive. He also owned the broad yard at the back of the Red House, which crowded out the back premises of the other buildings.

Once inside the house, Ghaio glared about him.

The room was quite dark and the walls peeling a little from damp. It had no look of affluence.

But then, primed by his tread, his slave woman arrived to light the yellow fat candles.

“Late, you slut.” He slapped her. “It doesn’t please me to come into a house black as pitch.”

“You said—”

“Never mind that.” (He had told her never to light the candles
when he was out. He was a miser, but a contrary one. She was supposed to guess the time of his return—and sometimes did from mere desperation.)

“Where’s my supper?”

She pointed mutely.

Ghaio’s views on food, and one or two other matters, were not miserly, when applied to himself. The table, now lit, showed a trencher of black bread, a white loaf, a dish of olives and cheese, a haunch of cold roast pork. And wine of course.

“All right.” He sat and took up a grabful of the food.

He chewed.

Candles cast shadows. In the corners there seemed very many tonight.

Confound those priests. Like shadows, they were everywhere. Soon they might come knocking on the private doors of such as himself. But he had his gambits ready, including the flail he used on his three slaves, this woman, the old man, and less often, the woman’s ugly, snotty child.

“See, saintly brother. I perform penitence on my own body.”

And he had gifted the Church. Gone to the Basilica, the Primo Suvio, great temple of God’s crusading knights, and
paid
. One hundred silver duccas. Even God should be delighted.

But Ghaio did not like to think of God. Though not sure that He existed, yet He stayed for Ghaio a tiny, nagging doubt, like the little pain in a tooth one felt years before it changed to agony and must be pulled.

“Tonight,” he said to the slave woman, “you come upstairs.” She said nothing. He said, “You hear me?” “Yes, signore.”

It wouldn’t take long. Against the wall even. She was hardly good enough for his bed.

When she opened the door to go out to the kitchen in the yard, Ghaio
caught the briefest strangest glimpse of something, outside.

What in the name of the Lamb—

But no, no, it was nothing. It was the woman’s child.

The child he had called
Volpa
—Fox—for its filthy reddish hair.

It must have washed that hair. The brat had been waiting for its mother, and as it moved back from the door, the hair—uncovered by the usual rag—caught the candle light, like a flick of fire.

The door had shut now.

Ghaio thought, after all, a flick of fire was to be expected here. The Wood-Seller’s house.

He sank his teeth in the pork. How old was the child now? He seldom saw her. He had bought them as a lot, ten years ago, got the price of the woman down, since the child, he said, was no use to him, only an infant.

The woman kept the child hidden from him mostly, he thought, not to annoy, and it—she—performed the most menial tasks, emptying night-soil, washing floors, walking after the wood-cart the old man slave pulled to market.

Hidden, he had not thought of the child much. But it—she—was older now. Twelve—or thirteen, even.

Perhaps he should look at the child.

A wind seemed to be rising outside, bringing the tide along the Canal of Seven Keys, the salt sea licking at the islands of Ve Nera, City of Venus the goddess of lust.

Soon it would be midnight, and the bell would sound again from Santa Lallo Lacrima. Two hours later it would toll the Prima Vigile for the priests to go on their knees once more. Those at least not prowling the byways, searching for drunks and whores to chastise. It was of no account to Ghaio in any case. Fed, and eased of sex, he would be long asleep by then.

BOOK ONE
Alter Mundi
PART ONE

Instead whereof thou gavest them a burning pillar of fire…

W
ISDOM OF
S
OLOMON

The Apocryhpha

I

F
IRST,
SHE
SAW THE MOUNTAINS
—not knowing what they were.

The sky, perhaps. Yes, probably she thought they were the sky; stones built of thin fine ether. The foothills of Heaven.

Two thirds of the year, there was white on them, snow … clouds. In high summer they darkened and there was no white.

The farm was in the earthly foothills, and here the slaves worked, among the brown grass and the yellow stalks of grain. Her memory was of sitting, of running, of carrying things.

She did not know what occurred, and after, her mother never explained. There was anger and fright.

Mother weeping. So she wept too.

Then a market-place, down on the Veneran Plain, in a town of stumbling little hovels and mud. It rained.

She was four.

Presently, the journey to the great City, whose name meant
Meeting Darkness
, or
To Travel By Night
: Ve Nera. The carter had a nickname for the City. Venus. He made jokes about Venus—now a city, next a goddess. Not the Virgin, the only goddess the child had heard of until then.

Finally, the carter lay over her
mother in the cart.

Outside the awning rain lashed miserably.

The carter grumbled, “Took you on—hope you’re worth it. And that pest of a baby, that little curse. You women. Breed like conies. Don’t dare bud from me. You hear, I’ll beat it out of you.”

The carter was Ghaio Wood-Seller. Master.

In memory, entering it, the City was indeed a darkness. They were put into a boat—never before felt, the motion of a canal. Arches of shadow, and blocks of night.

Water rippling black.

Christian slaves did not matter, the Church had said so. Bodies might be in chains, souls stayed free.

A month later, Ghaio beat her mother. He made the child, already new-named “Fox,” watch the proceeding, as a lesson.

Volpa’s mother was never pregnant again. Perhaps the beatings saw to that, or simply the generally harsh life in the Red House. Yet, although life was bad, they clung to it, as if to some granite rock-face. The alternative was to fall into the abyss.

Or was it? Volpa’s mother, in the early years, spoke sometimes of God, and sometimes of the Virgin. Later, she mentioned them less.

“We suffer on earth,” said Volpa’s mother, “so that we can be happy in another place.”

But why must we suffer
? Volpa might have asked.

Possibly she had done so.

Certainly an outlandish answer seemed to have evolved to just such a question: The world is a school, a cruel and exacting one. Only here can we learn from terrors and mishaps, which, beyond life on either side, are never encountered.

Why then learn? Why is it needful
?

“Because only then,” said Volpa’s mother’s sweet tenor voice, “can
we be one with God, who has already experienced, and surmounted them.”

So God did not send sorrows against mankind to punish or chastise?

No, simply to cleanse, to refine. God, lonely in omnipotence, longed for the company of creatures purified as He had been. He wished that every single soul should achieve such greatness and such wisdom as were already His.

Ghaio, truly, was a diligent exponent in God’s school.

Master. Apt title?

Volpa knew to fear and avoid him from the beginning. But it was normally easy, since she lived in another country, the kitchen and the yard.

The yard of the Red House was almost entirely filled with timber, logs, bundles of wood, and the shed where the cart was kept. There was also a cistern to catch rain, whose water was not of the best. (Nicer water was fetched by the woman from the nearest public well.) Over Ghaio’s cistern, however, there grew a fig tree. In summer the leaves were like dusty metal. Green figs appeared irregularly in autumn. Bare in winter, the branches had a rheumatic look.

Whatever the season, on nights of the full moon, when Ghaio slept or was from home and the other houses dark, Volpa and her mother would dance about this tree in a strange, silent circling. The old male slave, coming across the yard to the privy one night, saw this, hid his eyes and went away, Volpa had no other indications that the dancing might be profane.

Unlike the lesson of God, she never queried it. They had danced in this way, she
thought, in the foothills long ago.

Ghaio slept with her mother—that is, had swift, rough intercourse with her mother—two or three times a month, in the early days. In the past four years, far less often.

Volpa saw and knew nothing of these couplings.

Thus once, Volpa’s mother said an odd thing. “He’ll be too old before you’re grown.”

It was less a statement, of course, than a prayer.

Ghaio had shown no inclination to violate the child, who, besides, was kept dirty and muffled and as much from his sight as was feasible.

But time, which leached off some of Ghaio’s libido, and some of his strength, was working an opposite magic on the woman’s daughter.

Volpa, who had never seen in a mirror—would not be able even to recognize her own face—was at first aware only of slight changes. The ill-treatment which had, perhaps, kept her mother barren, delayed the onset of womanhood. But finally it came. Soreness blossomed into breasts. A thunder of pain broke like a crystal and spotted the straw Volpa slept on with ruby drops.

Then she saw her mother with her hands to her lips. Afraid.

“What have I done? Mumma—I’m sorry—I didn’t mean to.” (Like the day she broke the pot—and was whipped.)

“No, it’s not your fault. It can’t be helped. It’s what I told you of—do you remember?”

“That? This—is
that
—”

“Yes. Don’t cry. It’s good. As it must be.”

“But
you’re
crying, mumma—”

“Only from the sun in my eyes.”

For Volpa’s bleeding had begun in her birth
month, late summer, the time of the sun lion, patron of the Primo, the great Basilica of Ve Nera.

Volpa—even her mother now called her that—was fourteen.

Soon, trudging up the alley after the old man, who hauled the cart, behind the creaking wood and picking up any which fell out, Volpa heard fresh abuse. Before she had been pushed about, slandered as a slave child.

Now she was man-handled as a slave who was a woman.

In the market-place boys and men stole up on her and cupped the shallow rounds of her body, breast, thigh, buttock, in unloving hands. Squeezed her like the vegetables. “She’s a hot piece.” “No, not ripe yet.”

Sometimes she was glad when the black-robed priests moved nearby, although they spread fear like the aroma of their incense. Then men left her alone.

The adult Volpa did not confide much in her mother.

Intuitively she knew her increasingly silent parent had enough to bear. Volpa bore her own dismay, unspoken. It was life.

It was God’s school.

But sometimes she thought of the story her mother had told her, at the farm in the hills, and maybe again, once or twice, in the first two or three years of the Red House.

The mother was the heroine of this story. It was a real story, true.

Already carrying her daughter in her womb, but not yet knowing it, Volpa’s mother had been one night at dusk on a hill.

The day’s work was over, and perhaps she was in those days then, allowed rest; she had never said. But pausing, she had looked up above the bare winter fields, into a pale
sky that had seemed, she said, the color of the emeralds on the fingers of the mightiest priests. And stars were set out in this polished sky, fierce, and prickled as hedgehogs with their lights.

Suddenly the air, which was cold, grew warm. A warm wind blew up the plain, thick as the gusts of summer. And on the wind, high, high up in the orb of the emerald that was sky, Volpa’s mother saw a flight of angels pass.

“At first I took them for birds, Blessed Maria pardon me. They were against the light, and yet they had a gleam on them. And the wings, moving slowly, as gulls’ wings do when they catch the currents of the air above the City. But they didn’t have any shape of birds, beyond their wings.

They were long, like men with their legs stretched out, their arms crossed over the chest. And on the head of each, a flame—like a star come detached, and going with them.”

This story of the angels never varied, or only here and there an iota. Now and then some slight extra detail was added—as of hearing a cock crow in the valley, as if at sunrise, and thinking the cock had seen them too—but never anything left out.

“Where did they go, mumma?”

“Away, upwards—into the dome of the sky. Until they grew so small they vanished.”

“Did they look at you?”

“I don’t know. Perhaps.”

“Why did you see them?”

“Because they were there, and I was looking up,” Volpa’s mother had replied, with dignified simplicity.

BOOK: Saint Fire (Secret Books of Venus Series)
3.24Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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