THE GOLDEN DOLPHINS GRACE ANDREACCHI
The right of Grace Andreacchi to be identified as author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. This is a work of fiction. Any similarity of persons, places or events depicted herein to actual persons, places or events is purely coincidental. Copyright ÂŠ 2008 by Grace Andreacchi Hadas All rights reserved. This story first appeared in The Carolina Quarterly. Cover image: fresco at the Palace of Knossos, Crete, circa 1500 B.C.
by the same author SCARABOCCHIO POETRY AND FEAR GIVE MY HEART EASE MUSIC FOR GLASS ORCHESTRA ELYSIAN SONNETS AND OTHER POEMS VEGETABLE MEDLY (FOR THE THEATRE)
CONTENTS Part I - Mélusine .................................................................... 1 Part II - Père René ............................................................. 17 Part III - The Kingdom of the Puppets ..................... 24 Part IV - The Kingdom of the Dolphins .................... 42
PART I - MĂ‰LUSINE There was once a den of thieves that lived beneath the streets of Paris. They made their home in a maze of chambers carved from the rock beneath the teeming city, and the sewers were their secret thoroughfares, providing a swift and easy route to any part of the town. The water rushed through the dark tunnels, hissing like a thousand snakes, foaming in the dim light of lanterns, reeking of sulphur and decay. But the chambers, shut away from the world by the dank walls, by a hundred feet of rock and water, were furnished with every luxury: gilt mirrors, featherbeds with velvet hangings, chandeliers set round with little showers of crystal drops, turkish carpets, and
sticks of sweet incense to dispel the vaporous fumes. At the head of this band of thieves was a man known as Antoine le Gros. He was swarthy, with a thick, pock-marked skin and eyebrows like two circumflex marks above small, alert, ever-moving eyes. He was both large and fat, with enormous arms that could easily crush a man to death, ending in absurdly fine hands, white and plump, with polished fingernails. It was his custom to wear two or three rings upon each hand, and these were set with magnificent stones, a ruby as large as a swallow's egg, a rare purple diamond, a tiger's face in gold with emerald eyes - all spoils of thievery. By nature he was at once cruel and sentimental. He had been known to mutilate a man who had betrayed him, also to cry at the sight of a kitten drowned in the Seine. Ignorant, intelligent, and terribly cunning, he kept his little band together by means of fear fortified with greed, for there was wealth enough to go around.
Now it may come as a surprise to hear that this same Antoine had a young wife, a woman he had actually married in the legitimate if not quite ordinary way, before a priest who had been kidnapped especially for the purpose, and who had been willing enough to oblige on hearing the threats of the good Antoine, uttered, very low, in his ear. The bride was a girl of not more than sixteen years, whiter than a lily, with white-gold hair and dark blue eyes, eyes like the winter sky at dusk, when a slow violet light settles over the snow, eyes set between smutty black lashes, eyes full of life, disturbing, animalfrank, brighter than two little flames. She was more in the style of the Botticelli Venus than the Titian, for there was something spiritual in her lush looks, something ethereal in her fair nakedness, and she seemed to carry her own light about with her, a soft radiance that glowed in the heart of darkness, among the crimson pillows where she made her bed. This flesh of hers had the additional peculiarity that it gave off an odour, not like that of other girls, but like a rose in the full ripeness of its being, and it is a
fact, that not even a dog could detect her approach, for she had not the scent of human beings about her. This made her invaluable for entering the mansions of the Faubourg St. HonorĂŠ, where the fearful owners often kept one or more mastiffs to guard the premises at night. Her name was MĂŠlusine, and she was dressed in a black lace shawl and nothing else. The shawl covered her completely from the shoulders to the feet, but beneath it she was quite naked, as indeed she was meant to be. The clear light of her flesh shone through the whorls of lace like the light of a distant house through the branches of trees in winter. When she walked, which she did soundlessly, her slim white leg and little bare foot would shoot out from beneath the shawl. Her pale hair hung free in loose waves to her knees; it was like another shawl, opposite in colour, over the first. At her side was a little boy, as fair as herself. Some said he was her brother, others her son, but this last did not seem possible, she appeared so young. It was rumoured that she was still a
virgin, that Antoine did not dare to touch her, but only kept her in order to look at her, and perhaps relieved the desire she excited in other ways. His depravity with women had been legendary, but since the marriage to MĂŠlusine he had ceased his frequent visits to the elegant bordellos of the Right Bank. Others said he was indifferent to the girl - it was the child that interested him. He did follow the boy with his quick-moving eyes. A slow, strange expression would come over his face, something between a smile and a grimace of pain. The boy, Lucien, was devoted to his mother, and responded to all other overtures of friendship with large, frightened eyes. Although his hearing was acute, he had been born a mute, and was unable to utter even a cry. He went always hand in hand with MĂŠlusine, and he slept with her at night, curled beneath her chin in the soft featherbed, under the velvet coverlet. When Antoine came to her room he would silently slip to the floor and roll under the bed - he had grown up in the bordello and
was quite used to it. To MĂŠlusine, Lucien was simply a part of her, and accepted as such. She actually thought of him as exactly that, an extension of herself, mysteriously incarnate in another body, a small, male body perhaps, but herself nonetheless. His birth had come unexpectedly, not one of the Sisters had noticed the swelling beneath the loose black dress. He was born in the fullness of May, the air was sweet with lilac, and the nightingales sang in the garden. His cries brought the Sisters hurrying to her bed. They broke out in exclamations of horror and surprise, but MĂŠlusine was lost in the beauty of the child, whose tiny white limbs glowed in the dark room, she was exhausted and enraptured, caught in the mystery of this sudden gift of another self, delivered from the first. The Sisters wanted to send her back to her family, but her mother was dead, her father was in the West Indies, and her uncle absolutely refused to have her. So one night, when she had regained her strength, she took the child,
slipped out from behind the high stone walls, and set off on the road to Paris. A full moon was glinting on the spire of the old chapel, lighting the hedges and the dark green fields. She took no last look, but set her face resolutely towards the great city and began to walk. At daybreak she sat down under a tree and nursed the child. She could see Paris in the distance, white and gold, rising out of the morning mist, and the Seine a silver ribbon threading into the golden bowl. She followed the river to her destination - it was not far. She was met by Madame de ______ , who seemed to be expecting her, and taken to a lovely, comfortable room, much nicer than her room at the convent, with pink silk cushions on the bed and a flowered paper on the walls. Only Madame wished her to send the child out to nurse, and this she would not do. At first it appeared she would not be able to stay at the beautiful house on the Rue de Rivoli, but when Madame had observed the perfect quietness of the little one, and the utter indifference of the gentlemen who called to his presence in the little cradle, veiled,
in the corner of the room, she relented in her original intention and declared that the child might stay after all, at least until he was older. Beautiful as he was, and good, that time had never come, and indeed Lucien had been rather a pet of the house, for all the women there were young and good-natured, and they delighted to have him about in the dull morning hours, or rather the earlier part of the afternoon, when they had risen, breakfasted on sweet rolls and coffee, and several hours still remained until the first gentlemen would call. They would wind his pale curls around their fingers, dress him in cunning silks, and sing him bawdy songs, playing on the piano and giggling in their high, girlish voices. The house was much like the convent - the same constant girlish camaraderie, and MĂŠlusine felt quite at home. To be sure, the gentlemen made a difference, but she had learned something of such matters at school, first with Sylvie, an older girl who had liked her very much, and then with PĂ¨re RenĂŠ, who had heard her confession and then seduced, or rather, more accurately, raped her. This was
surprising, as PĂ¨re RenĂŠ was a man past forty years of age and of impeccable reputation, and he himself had absolutely no idea what had possessed him to do such a thing. He could only suppose it was the Devil himself, and there had in fact been a kind of blackness before his eyes, a foul taste in his mouth, and a cold terror in his heart when he laid hands on the girl. Might not these things have signified the presence of the Evil One? She had knelt before him at a prie-dieu in the little room behind the sacristy where he was accustomed to hear the confessions of the nuns and girls. The light fell through the high lancet and settled on her hair like a shower of gold. She crossed herself, lowered her smutty lashes, and began to speak from between soft, rose-petal lips. There was an odour of overpowering sweetness in the stale little room. 'Bless me Father, for I have sinned,' she said. She told him she had committed a sin of impurity in both thought and deed. She told him what she had done with Sylvie. Then she looked up suddenly - he was not prepared! She caught his eyes with her own, and she smiled.
Then the blackness had gripped his heart and he had been unable to free himself from it. She told no one. She did not understand the meaning of what was done to her, and supposed it to be a kind of penance. She did not connect the child she later bore in any way with this incident, and, wholly ignorant of the facts of life, imagined him to be completely her own creation, and God's. At this time there were half a dozen young men in the band, any one of whom would willingly have died for MĂŠlusine, but none of whom was foolhardy enough to so much as address a single word to her. It was Antoine's pleasure and perhaps his folly to demonstrate his power over them by sometimes ordering her into their midst, where he would then command her to drop her shawl and stand revealed in all her shining nakedness. This she did willingly, for she was sensible of the excitement she aroused as a sweet and pleasant thing - an emanation of love that arose in the loins of men and leaped out through their eyes, enveloping
her as a warm, fecund breeze might have done in the world above on one of the first hot days of spring, when everything is suddenly shouting with life. She stood perfectly still and basked in this sensation, while the men, unable to turn away their eyes, emitted little, inadvertent sighs compounded of equal parts desire and awe for her beauty. Lucien sat at her feet and played with a heavy gold bracelet he wore on his ankle, a gift from Antoine. It was hung with little animal charms - a lion, a bear, a leaping dolphin, and jingled when he walked. As she very rarely ventured above the ground, and then only at night, she grew ever paler and more luminescent, her skin became pearly in its whiteness, with secret depths of quiet blue and pink visible in the light from the tall white tapers that burned in her chamber. She did not on the whole regret the world of light and air, for she had much to content her underground. Her toys and baubles were of ivory and gold set with precious stones, her sheets were of silk, her dainty meals lovingly prepared and served from a silver tray on the finest painted porcelain. She
drank the best ruby wines and still, deep golden liqueurs that smelled of the woods and fields. For a companion she was well provided with Lucien. It would be unfair to say that Antoine had taken her against her will; he had simply not consulted her in the matter, nor did it occur to her that he should do so. He had come to the house, had her once, and returned the next day with a ruby the size of a child's fist. This he had given to Madame de ______. He had dressed MĂŠlusine in the lace shawl, indicating that it was the only garment she was to wear henceforth, and hurried her into a waiting carriage. Lucien sat between them on the rolling seat as they rattled through the streets, and Antoine placed one delicate hand on the boy's knee to prevent him from falling. No, she did not regret the world, and as time passed she did not even remember it clearly. The soft light of candles, the air still and cloudy with perfume and decay, the hushed echoes in the carpeted tunnels, were far more real to her than the bright, noisy world above. So she lived
like a little bird in a plush nest, in her room the colour of rubies, and played with her golden toys and her pretty child. A magnificent staircase, carved from the rock and carpeted in red, led up to the door of her chamber. On either side were white marble banisters, stippled with black lines like the veins that appear through translucent skin., and crowned with a pair of golden dolphins. The dolphins were taut, smooth, glistening gold, high-leaping, their bodies twisted to one side, their mouths open in enigmatic smiles. MĂŠlusine thought she had seen something like them before, but she couldn't remember where or when. There was a meaning to their smiles, to the oblique set of their eyes, that drew her back day after day to stroke their cold, slippery skins and ponder. She wondered where they might have come from - they looked to be of ancient workmanship and were certainly not of a piece with the marble staircase. They would have done well for the palace of a sea-king, had there been such a thing, might have graced the
portals of Atlantis and shimmered in the green light beneath the sea, bringing solace to the souls of the drowned with their sly smiles and droll, twisted tails. Now it happened that Antoine le Gros and his band of thieves were planning a particularly difficult and daring heist, for he had set his sights on the treasures of the ElysĂŠe Palace, and this could fairly be described as the most closely guarded building in the whole of Paris. MĂŠlusine was essential to the plan, for it was she who was to slip past the guards and dogs and in through the ground floor window. As always, Antoine had laid his plans most carefully. It was a moonless midsummer night, the air was still and heavy, laden with moisture, the very worst sort of weather for watching - the guards would certainly be longing for sleep. He had waited patiently for just such a night as this. They emerged from the sewers onto a narrow street behind the palace, first MĂŠlusine with Lucien, then Antoine, then the others, moving swiftly, stealthily, silently in the dark. First they
positioned themselves around the outer wall of the palace. Then Antoine hoisted MĂŠlusine atop the wall and threw the rope to her waiting hands. She secured it, then dropped to the soft ground on the other side. One by one they scaled the wall and hid themselves in the shrubbery. Lucien curled up on the ground beneath a rosebush and closed his eyes, wishing to sleep. He knew she would come for him when she was ready. He breathed the close, damp smell of earth and roses, and listened to a bird whistling plaintively somewhere among the trees. The palace lay in complete darkness, its white bulk barely visible in the night. She approached fearlessly, revelling in the night air, the tickle of the grass under her feet, the danger like something wet and cool against her skin. The guard was asleep, slumped against the wall, his tunic unbuttoned and his cap askew over one ear. She turned and whistled, softly as a bird, to Antoine, and he came gliding silently out of the shadows and slipped his knife into the
young man's side, once only, cleanly and quickly, and drew it out glistening with blood. He caught the man deftly in his arms and lay him on the grass, his face turned towards the earth. The thieves closed in, picking off the guards one by one. Now the dogs were the only remaining obstacle. MĂŠlusine climbed onto the broad window ledge and worked patiently at the hasp until it yielded. Swinging open the casement, she slipped inside and was just about to drop to the floor when a shot rang out. She slid to the ground and looked out from behind the shrubbery. A posse of soldiers came rushing across the lawn from either side - clearly they had been expected. It was difficult to see in the dark, but she heard more shots, then Antoine's voice, unmistakable, bellowing like a bull. She saw his huge shape as he toppled from the wall, silhouetted in the sullen glare of a torch. There was much running and shouting, the thieves were caught tight in the trap leaderless, panicked. She remained where she was until all the men had gone. Then she
walked cautiously across the lawn to where the child lay sleeping under the rose bush. She woke him with kisses and they went out together through the open gate, just as dawn was breaking over the city.
PART II - PĂˆRE RENĂ‰ Beyond the last straggling streets that mark the boundaries of Paris stands the great forest of Fontainebleau. Here the giant oaks tower to the sky, their rough round trunks like the massive columns of the old Norman churches at Caen and Lessay, and, far above, their full branches form a bright vault of variegated green, through which the ever-changing light plays with every passing breeze. In these branches nest all the birds of the air, from the enchanted nightingale to the raucous, sooty crow; the forest echoes with their many songs. The dim cathedral floor is nearly bare, soft with fragrant leaf mould, and there, like gems set in the darkness, bloom the
tiny wildflowers, gentian, blue, and starry white. Beside a clear stream where deer come to drink in the misty dawn, there stands a little tumbledown hut built of large stones piled one upon another, and the whole roofed over with moss and twigs. It was here in this hut that PĂ¨re RenĂŠ had come to live, and to do penance for his unforeseen crime against MĂŠlusine. He had built the hut, carrying the heavy stones for many miles. He allowed himself no food but what he could gather from the forest - berries, overripe fruits, the honey of wild bees. He disturbed no living thing, and the animals had grown used to his presence. The deer often came to drink outside his door, and only glanced at him for a moment with their sad dark eyes, as he knelt, motionless, hour after hour on the bare ground before the hut; they only glanced as if to say Well, Father, here you are still! The birds also were not afraid, and the cheeky crows would even peck the berries from his pathetic little hoard, and perch mockingly on his shoulders as
he prayed, flapping their wings in his worn, immobile face before they launched, screaming, towards the sky. His heart was filled with bitterness at his sin, committed as it had been, out of a seeming necessity, a compulsion originating outside himself, without reference to his conscious will or being. It seemed to him that God had wished to mock him, to show him up in his weakness by preying on that weakest of all man's faculties, the susceptibility to wanton beauty. And it was God who created this terrible beauty, and set it free to roam the world, set it in his path to waylay and trip him. He had fallen into the oldest, easiest trap, and he was profoundly ashamed - he no longer wished to know himself. In the great forest he sought privacy for this private hatred - of himself, of beauty, of God. He was a learned man; his treatise on the Holy Trinity was well regarded in theological circles. Therein he had demonstrated the absolute necessity of the tripartite God, delineating the nature and purpose of each Person, and their
complete harmony and identity on a plane of super-human understanding. God the Father, the life-giver; God the Son, the Eternal Sacrifice; God the Holy Ghost, the Paraclete, on whose snowy breast the afflicted found comfort and refreshment. Now he was wounded in his pride, and his barren prayers, uttered from a black heart, met with no answer in heaven. He wore a rough cassock of black stuff, frayed at the knees from constant prayer. He grew ever thinner, and his hair and beard, once stylishly trimmed, grew long and wild, and his eyes were like unto those of a blind man, terrifying in their emptiness. He had seen neither man nor woman since the day of his precipitate flight from the world. The peasants shunned him, believing him to be possessed by a demon; they took warning from the many evil crows that swarmed about his hut, and even the woodcutters kept well away. Only the gentle deer did not forsake him, still he paid them no heed, and was unmoved by their daily silent companionship. So careless had he grown that
when he once caught sight of himself on bending down to drink, he did not know himself, and was momentarily frightened by the wild, hairy apparition, lifting its streaming chops from the water. Thus the years came and went, leaving him no wiser but ever more bitter, like the shrivelled winter apples that have been left too long on the tree, whose sweetness has turned to gall, whose once rosy skins are puckered and brown, food fit only for the hungry birds after the first snows have fallen. He looked with a bitter hunger on the world, but he did not see that the world looked back at him. It was a day in late autumn, the air was chill, and ice had formed overnight in the crevices of the rocks, the surface of the stream was strewn with golden leaves, floating slowly on the dark water, borne along by wind and current. When he knelt this time for his accustomed drink, he caught sight of something unexpected, something he had not seen before. It was a school of golden dolphins, far, far below the
surface of the water, impossibly deep, he thought, for a mere stream. They darted, graceful, their bodies shining in the depths, then swam out of sight. He dismissed the whole incident as the workings of his own perturbed mind. The next day the dolphins appeared again, this time closer to the surface, although still very deep. He could see them in greater detail - their perfectly smooth, golden skins, their flashing tails, whipping back and forth as they leaped forwards, their small, round eyes and enigmatic smiles, for they seemed to look up at him, smiling, beckoning. They circled beneath his gaze before swimming off again, as if they wished to assure themselves of his continuing observation. On the third day the rain pelted down in icy sheets as he knelt outside the hut in the attitude of prayer, his cassock soaked and clinging to him, his knees grown numb on the cold ground, his heart, as ever, bitter as gall. And it was thus that the golden dolphin found him. He leaped suddenly from the stream, a huge, shining
apparition, and seized the man in his mouth. RenĂŠ had only a moment to feel surprise, fear, and he was plunging headlong through the dark, icy stream, deeper and deeper, then into a cavern where the water turned suddenly aquamarine, deliciously warm and bright. He slithered onto the dolphin's back and wrapped his arms around its neck. The creature had slowed its pace when it entered the cavern, enabling him to do this. He found, to his surprise, that he could breathe quite easily. The water streamed pleasantly over his body, like a fragrant, crystalline bath. The walls of the cavern were of pink and white coral, wrought in a thousand fantastic shapes. Schools of brightly coloured fish darted in and out between the pillars of rock, and passed before his face without any fear. He passed on the dolphin's back through three caverns in succession, each more beautiful than the last, each filled with an ever greater variety of life - angelfish of blue and gold, their transparent wings glowing in the gentle
underwater light; tiny seahorses bobbing up and down; bright flowers of anemones opening their pink and red mouths in greeting and singing in high, sweet harmonies a wordless song of the sea; swaying fans of lacy black and green seafern; majestic pike and slithery eels. The roofs of these caves were studded with spiky red starfish, like living stars above their heads. Then the walls of the last cavern gave way to endless blue, and they plunged ever deeper towards the dark bottom of the sea. There he saw a lake of fire, molten bright, and he heard dimly, through the roar of flames, the voices of men and demons crying out in agony, although there was no trace of life to be seen on all the broad, fiery face of the lake.
PART III - THE KINGDOM OF THE PUPPETS MĂŠlusine and Lucien walked for many hours, away from Paris, out into the verdant countryside. The fields were ripe with grain, the
farmyards starred with marguerites and steaming with cattle dung. The early rising sun soon burned away the mist, and they grew hot and weary. They passed through many villages, the small stone cottages clustered like flowers at the edges of the fields, the sleepy boys driving the cattle to pasture, the women emptying pails of slops, the men in their heavy boots, busy with horse, forge, or shop, wiping the breakfast crumbs from their lips to stare as they went by. The dogs barked at them, and followed them down the narrow lanes, the women turned away in shame, or stared in fascination, the men thought to pursue her, but none in fact did so. As if under an enchantment, they could only watch in dumb amazement as she passed by in all her shining near-naked beauty, the weary, silent child at her side. At last she resolved to stop at the next inn, for it was impossible to go any farther, and the distance from Paris was now sufficient to ensure their safety from the police. They turned another dusty bend in the road and beheld a
small, slovenly inn, with a pigsty to one side where a boy stood emptying the slops, and, hanging from the rafters, the inn sign, with its motif of a bright, leaping dolphin, and the name above, very clear in the morning light, "The Golden Dolphin". She went up to the door and knocked, and the boy dropped the pail and came running up behind her. He was a lad of about her own age, and he blushed, pulled off his cap, and asked her please to come in. The innkeeper and his wife were decent people, and their hearts went out to the two tired children. They asked her no questions, but, content to take her even as a gift from God, gave her a decent dress to wear and a little space in the loft where she might sleep, and set her to work about the house and barn. But MĂŠlusine, however good her will, was quite unable to wear the dress, and always reappeared in her old shawl, or, worse yet, oblivious to the changing weather and the shame of those around her, would appear altogether naked. Finally the old woman spoke to her in kind but
definite terms, and MĂŠlusine made herself a shift from the flour sacks, and another just like it for Lucien. This became their new habitual garb. While modesty was thus served, strangely, the rough garment only emphasized her unearthly loveliness. Her slender white legs protruded from beneath the shift like twin flower stalks, her thin arms like two graceful wings sprouted from her hidden body. She worked tirelessly about the place, feeding the pigs, currying the horses, scouring in the kitchen and laying fires in the rooms, and she said very little, so that people imagined her to be simple. The child followed her about, content to be at her side, or amused himself in the fields and in the hayloft. There was something so pleasant and yet uncanny in her presence, as if an angel had come among them as in the old Bible days. She was soon a favourite at the Golden Dolphin, and then in the village as well. At night she lay in the loft with Lucien, deep in the hay that smelled of sun and earth. Together they watched the stars come out in the velvet sky, felt the night breeze spring up, carrying the odours
of cooking fires and well-turned fields. Beneath her, the horses moved sleepily in their stalls, a foal gave a gentle whinny, and was answered by its mother's deeper voice. She drew the child close and caressed his cheek, kissed his golden hair.. He slept peacefully, his small white form glowing dimly in the dark loft. The swallows flew through the darkening sky into the barn, twittering softly among themselves, and the last shreds of lavender faded to blue, then black. She never thought of Antoine le Gros, nor of Paris. But it was then, in the quiet twilight, that her thoughts would turn to Père René, and she would look wonderingly up at the stars, and pray for him, the man who had given her the first taste of a man's pleasure in a woman's body, her first knowledge of God, her first fear. And of course, her child, for she understood now that Lucien was indeed his son as well as her own. She had a notion that she would see him again some day. All might have gone well for Mélusine and her child had it not been for the Comte de Courcy. He was a tall, thin, ugly
man, with high, stooped shoulders, given to wearing bright velvet coats decorated with much braid and passementerie. His face was very round, very yellow, and his hair very red, sticking straight up from his head. When he smiled, which he did almost perpetually, he showed a huge grin of very many sharp, yellow teeth. He was famous for his love of both women and horses. It was inevitable that he would hear of MĂŠlusine, make inquiries, and eventually turn up at the inn to see for himself what all the fuss was about. 'She's a real angel, your Excellency,' his young groom said to him, with a serious expression in his eyes. 'Humph,' thought the Count to himself, 'We'll see just what sort of angel would be slaving at a roadside inn with her little bastard in tow.' He was on his way to Troyes about a horse, and he took the opportunity to stop at the Golden Dolphin. It was a fine day in September, the door was open to admit the fading warmth of the sun, the first pale leaves were falling from the poplars in the yard. It was the middle of the
morning and the public room was empty. He strode into the house, grinning with ferocious intensity at everything - the sawdust on the floor, the rickety tables, the wine stains on the tablecloths, the one or two flies on the wall. The innkeeper came bustling in to serve him, poured out his usual brandy, which the Count sipped slowly and without a word, looking sideways up at the ceiling. At last he put down the glass and wiped his lips with his handkerchief. 'How are things, Jean-Marie?' he asked. The innkeeper nodded in consideration. 'Not bad, Your Excellency.' He was not a big talker. An old black and white spaniel bitch wandered into the room and curled up on the dead hearth among the cinders. The Count looked about, still grinning. 'Where's the girl?' he said at last. The innkeeper's eyebrows shot up, he opened his mouth and shut it again, as if unsure what to say. 'What girl speaking of?'
'Come now, you know the girl, you've got her here. The pretty little one with the baby what's her name, Ernestine, Columbine, something like that?' 'MĂŠlusine,' the innkeeper replied, but just at this juncture MĂŠlusine herself came into the room with an armload of firewood. She was surprised to find anyone there at that time of day. She nodded to the gentleman, then knelt to arrange the logs in the hearth, patting the old spaniel affectionately. The little dog licked her hand and moved out of the way. Lucien stood behind her, regarding the newcomer with large, silent eyes. The treacherous sunlight, supposed to be a gift of the good Lord, fell upon her white-gold hair, outlined her snowy arms and the curve of her body beneath the shift. She was taken that very day to the chateau outside the town, where she and Lucien were given a silk boudoir in one of the turreted towers of the great stone house. The old innkeeper and his wife were very sorry to see her go, but what could they have done after all?
It was not as if he had taken her against her will. She went willingly enough, with a quiet, resigned expression, much as she had accepted their orders to scour the plates or sweep out the rooms. Only when he attempted to separate her from her child had she shown any emotion, clinging to the boy in mute terror and shaking her head again and again. Lucien went with her. So it came to pass that once again MĂŠlusine found herself surrounded by every luxury. From her room in the tower she had a view of the wide green lawn that swept down towards the deep, swiftly flowing river. The white ducks waddled across the lawn, picking at the tender shoots. She wore none of the lovely silk gowns the Count lavished upon her, and often neglected to wear anything at all. She seemed impervious to cold, and her skin was always warm and fragrant, of an incredible softness to the touch, such as to make velvet feel like sandpaper beside it so that, for the Count, merely to caress her shoulder was an activity of an hour's duration from which he could scarcely
rouse himself. She took long baths in angelwater, and scattered fresh rose petals on her sheets. She sometimes draped herself in a long lace shawl which he had obtained for her, even finer than the old one, woven of silk thread like the black webs of tiny spiders, and she adorned her round white neck with a heavy necklace of heart-shaped diamonds. She liked the way they caught the light and glittered with all the colours of the rainbow. At first the Count feared she might try to run away, and kept her locked up in the tower. But it soon became apparent that she was, if not happy, at least content to stay for awhile, and he allowed her to come and go at will, although she never left the grounds of the chateau. Often she went with Lucien to walk in the gardens. He now wore a cunning velvet suit, a miniature of the Count's, and carried a golden ball. They fed cakecrumbs to the ducks and watched them glide on the smooth, dark surface of the river. Once they saw a school of golden dolphins go by, swimming downstream towards the sea.
The Count came to her often for lovemaking, and while she thought him very ugly this did not render him repulsive to her. For she was of the opinion that we are all God's creatures, and even the prettiest child is ugly when it cries. Willing, as always, to please, she acquiesced in this as in all things. The Count was one of those men who are unable to take their sexual pleasures without some admixture of cruelty, and more than once he had been in some brush with the law on this account. He had learned to choose his mistresses wisely, from among the weak and powerless, and to temper his cruelties with kindness, gifts, and presents of money to close their mouths. Despite the danger he was unable to restrain himself, for there was something inexpressibly sweet to him in a cry of pain. Now it is curious to note that with MĂŠlusine he found himself absolutely unable to carry on in his usual way. It was not that he was unwilling, but when he lifted his hand against her, he found that it was forcibly restrained, as if by an invisible but mighty hand. Again and again he tried, always to be thwarted by the
invisible hand. Eventually he grew afraid. 'The girl has angels at her side,' he thought, and although he did not believe in God, he believed very much in the angels and devils, for of the latter he had some experience. He became frustrated, and was forced to satisfy his lust on his beautiful horses, whipping them until they bled. Autumn was well advanced, the poplars had shed their leafy gold, the stripped fields lay brown in the chilly sun, when a travelling puppet show came to the town - a man, and a boy, and a donkey pulling a bright blue and yellow cart that encased the marionettes like so many sleeping chicks in a big painted egg. The man and the boy were alike swarthy and undistinguished, small-boned and thin, dressed in greasy, ragged clothes. They had the bright, glinting eyes of gypsies, and silver earrings gleamed from beneath their heavy black locks. They asked permission to camp in the field behind the chateau. In the night, from her window, MĂŠlusine saw the dim glow of their
campfire, far down by the riverbank. The next morning they commenced preparations for the show. Leaflets were distributed in the town announcing The Last Judgement, with Excerpts from the Apocalypse of St. John, to be performed at eight o'clock that evening. Well before the stated hour virtually the entire village had assembled on the lawn. The innkeeper and his son had set up a stand and were selling cider and wine at inflated prices; the baker's wife sold cakes from the back of her cart. The women sat on blankets on the damp ground, holding their babies on their laps, the children wandered round and round the stage, hoping for an early glimpse of the puppets. The men were concentrated around the drinks stand. MĂŠlusine saw many of her old friends for the first time in weeks - they all remarked on how well she was looking. She found a spot on the grass and sat cross-legged, Lucien beside her, and waited for the show to begin. When it had grown fully dark the torches were lit and the stage flared into sudden
prominence, while the rest of the world sank back into darkness. There was a sudden rattle of the tambourine, and a huge ugly puppet thrust his head out through the red curtains at the audience. He had a very round, yellow face, and red hair that stuck straight up into the air. His mouth was open in a perpetual grin, revealing two rows of huge, sharp, yellow teeth. Perched atop his head was a little crown of gold foil, slipping comically to one side. The audience roared with recognition, the children shrieked with fear, as the tambourine rattled to a crescendo. The puppet did not speak, but rather sang, in a high, grating falsetto: 'Good evening, Mesdames et Messieurs, and welcome to my kingdom! Everyone is welcome! The day of reckoning has come round at last, just as you always knew it would, the day you have all been waiting for, with, of course, excerpts from the Apocalypse of St. John, very carefully selected to appeal to the most refined company. Let me assure you that this entertainment is of the highest quality, and has
been most diligently attended by the highest names in the land. And not only in France, but in other countries as well. I would ask everyone to pay close attention, for this will be the one and only, the final performance.' With another flourish of the tambourine, the curtains parted to reveal a scene of the main street of the town. The first of the marionettes to appear were disappointingly ordinary, being dressed in the clothes of the peasantry, much like those of the audience. They did move, however, with an uncanny semblance of life. Indeed, so cunningly were they fashioned, so skilfully manipulated, that it was impossible to see the joints of their wooden limbs; their arms and legs appeared fluid in motion, their painted skin seemed almost to have the glow of life. Only their immobile faces reassured one that they were in fact mere puppets. The first was a simple scene of village life. The people went about their daily business, and many in the audience thought they recognized their neighbours in distinctive features of dress
or manner. The puppet who kept the mill was observed to give short measure. The bakerpuppet mixed sawdust in the flour, and the dairyman poured water into the milk. A labourer beat his wife and child, another stole alms from a beggar. A child who had been missing from the village for a long time was seen to be murdered by his father in a drunken rage, and the body thrown into the river. A young girl gave birth in the woods to a priest's child, and strangled it before it could cry. One by one their sins were paraded before them. At first there were murmurs, shouts of laughter and fear. But gradually all fell silent, spellbound by the odd, ridiculous spectacle, unable to look to right or left for fear of meeting the gaze of a fellow man, unable to turn away from the catalogue of horrors performed with grave nonchalance by an army of wooden dolls. The curtains closed for the end of the first act. The people sat in silence in the darkness. There was light from neither moon nor stars that night. The children had fallen asleep. They
waited patiently, without stirring, for the show to begin again. This time the curtains parted to reveal the old stone walls of a convent school. The Mélusine puppet appeared for the first time, dressed in a black and white school girl's smock, her golden hair cascading down her back. She was accosted by a priest who forced himself upon her. The fierce, delighted lust of this priest was so intense that it set the people on fire, and many of the men began to groan in sympathy as he raped the Mélusine puppet, leering out at the audience with his tiny, painted eyes, humping obscenely under the little black cassock. The next scene was set in a forest. The same priest appeared, this time alone. He was dishevelled, his face distorted with sorrow and weeping. He knelt beside a stream and prayed. Mélusine sat forward in the dark, clasping her knees, holding her breath with excitement. Her own story had not concerned her unduly, but now she would find out what had become of Père René. As he prayed a woman appeared to him. Mélusine recognized herself once again,
but this time she was labouring to deliver her child. Her body shone as with the light of the sun, the moon was under her feet, and on her head was a crown of twelve stars. A fiery serpent came to devour the child, but PĂ¨re RenĂŠ prayed, and begged God to have pity on her outraged innocence. The serpent spewed out from its mouth a terrible flood to drown them, but the priest's prayers were answered, the earth cracked open and all the water flowed into the crack, swelling to a mighty river. The mother and child were borne out of sight on the wings of an eagle, but the priest was swept up by the flood and vanished under the rushing water. With a harsh rattle of the tambourine the curtains closed again, more torches were lit, and the gypsy man and his boy emerged, smiling, from behind the stage. The people, startled and relieved, broke into applause. So noisy was the crowd that no one noticed the first tremors of the earth. The red-haired King of the Puppets ran here and there among the people, attaching strings to their hands and feet and heads,
grinning his horrible grin, growing ever larger in the lurid light of the torches. It was then that a star appeared in the black, starless sky and fell rapidly towards the earth. It fell, hissing, into the river, trailing a wake of light in the black water. Then the whole earth trembled and quaked, the ground opened up in many places, spewing out black smoke, people screamed and tried to run, but the Puppet King gathered up the strings and dragged them all after him under the earth. The river overflowed its banks in a huge tide, sweeping MĂŠlusine beneath the flood.
PART IV - THE KINGDOM OF THE DOLPHINS The child was swept from her arms by the fierce current and whirled away out of sight. MĂŠlusine was dragged deeper and deeper, soon she could see nothing in the cold, dark vortex.
At last she was spewed forth into a warm, light world of pure cerulean blue. Far, far above her head the water formed a bright, liquid sky, and the rays of the distant sun played upon it like fingers upon a harp. The water here was soothing to the skin, and filled her lungs effortlessly, like spring air. Her long hair floated around her like seaweed, green-gold in the aqueous light. MĂŠlusine looked about. At first the blue depths seemed to be entirely featureless, but then she spied something far below, gleaming as if of gold. As she drew near she saw that it was a city built all of gold and surrounded by a wall of variegated coral. Between the chinks in the wall the little fish swam in and out, their bodies gleaming like live jewels. At the highest point of the city stood a golden palace adorned with every kind of shell the pink conch, the spotted cowrie, the cunning, coiled nautilus; branches of pale coral hung like lace curtains across the doors and windows, and waved like banners from the narrow golden spires. From within came sounds of laughter and singing. In the shimmering underwater
light, the whole city seemed to sway gently in time to this mysterious music. Around the outer wall swam a school of golden dolphins. The foremost of these, who wore a little officer's cap on his head, approached and asked if he might be of service to her. 'I am looking for my son,' she replied. 'Has he passed this way by any chance?' The dolphin regarded her with grave sorrow in his round black eyes. 'Your son is not here,' he said. 'He has been taken to the Lake of Fire, for the sins of the father shall be visited on the son. But you can go to him there, if you are willing.' 'I am indeed willing, only what must I do?' The dolphin plucked a golden starfish from the wall with his snout and placed it in her hand. 'I can't tell you how to get there, for I simply don't know the way,' he said. ' But take this along, for it may prove useful to you. I only know that it lies beyond the three Caves of Coral, close to the edge of the world. The lake is
guarded by a fiery serpent, but only be steadfast, and all will go well with you.' She thanked the dolphin and went on her way. After many, many miles she came to the Caves of Coral, and would have liked to tarry awhile in their beautiful halls. In the first cave were tables spread with fine delicacies, plates of dainty cakes, iced pink and white, in the shapes of seashells, and glasses of sweet, ambercoloured wine, and the mermaids smiled at her and called out enticingly, 'Come, little sister, eat with us, drink with us!' and their song was honey in her ears, for she was lonesome and weary, and the name of sister was sweet to her. But she shut her eyes, and stopped her ears to their songs, and passed on. In the second cave she was surrounded by the handsome mermen, who called her darling, and bid her stop and be their princess, that they might wait upon her night and day. They had prepared a soft couch for her to lie upon, with a lacy coverlet of pale green seaweed, and the cushions were bright anemones that whispered her name.
The handsomest and boldest of the mermen, who had black eyes and pure black locks, stepped in front of her and tried to hold her, but she shut her eyes, and stopped her ears to his pleas, and made herself stiff all over so that his hands slid away, and she passed on. In the third cave she saw her child, high on the wall in a little iron cage. He cried piteously and held out his arms. But she knew it for a phantom, for her own child was unable to cry. Although his face tormented her in its sorrow worse than any temptation, she shut her eyes and stopped her ears to his cries, and passed on. At last she came to the Lake of Fire, and it was guarded by a fiery serpent. But she tossed the golden starfish in his way and he chased after it, and let her pass. She plunged into the lake, and immediately her whole body was on fire, her hair streamed behind her a mass of flame, and in pain and terror she cried out again and again. Her screams were mingled with many others, for all around her she saw the shapes of men and women, all writhing in
flames but unable to burn. And there she found her child, sitting calmly in the midst of the fire, for the flames did not touch him. He smiled to see her, and rushed into her arms, and the flames of her body did not harm him. She rose with the child to the surface of the lake, but found the way once again barred by the serpent. But Père René had been waiting and watching beside the lake, and when he saw Mélusine and the child he sprang to his feet. He leaped upon the serpent, grasped it about its slippery neck, and began to throttle it. The serpent thrashed in its fury, churning the sea to a boil with its tail, and sending sparks from the lake far up into the world above, so that people wondered at the strange lights out over the sea, and for a long time afterwards they spoke of the night when the stars fell backwards from the sea into the sky. With all his strength he wrestled the serpent, and a strange joy took hold of his heart, the first he had known since he had sinned against Mélusine. He had found his strength at last, and he would not let go until death forced his hand. Mélusine and Lucien climbed from the
lake onto the slippery black rocks and stood watching the fight. The two wrestled for many hours. But at last the man grew weary and knew that soon he could do no more, and he began to loose his grip, for his hands were bloody where the sharp scales had cut them, and his skin and hair were all singed black where the serpent's breath had burned them, but his eyes were truly at peace. He turned his gaze upon Mélusine, that one last time he might fill his eyes with her immortal beauty. Meeting her eyes he read there forgiveness, and even love. And his eyes closed in weariness, in thanksgiving, and his hands slipped from about the serpent's neck. But three of the sparks which rose up out of the Lake of Fire rose high into the air and were transformed into the three angels, Raphael, Gabriel, and Michael, each with a flaming sword. And these three slew the serpent, and with a loud shriek it sank back into the lake. But Père René was borne up by the angels, as were
Mélusine and the child, and carried far away into the sea. When Père René awoke he found himself inside the palace of the King of the Dolphins in a tall, light room built of coral and gold, decorated in ivory and set with agate columns. The King of the Dolphins sat upon a dais on a golden throne, and he wore a little golden crown upon his head. He was surrounded by his councillors and courtiers, who swam in graceful formation up and down the length of the room, swerving between the narrow columns, or leaping playfully to the transparent roof that was studded with aquamarines and living starfish of silver and gold. Many mermen and mermaids were reclining on bright anemones of flame red and flower pink, and singing together softly in a language unknown to him. One mermaid played upon a harp, another on a little silver flute, a strange, sweet music unlike any he had ever heard before. But best of all, beside him, with her little white hand upon his brow, was Mélusine, her bright hair waving in the blue
water, her child, his son, at her feet. The mysterious peace was with him still, it filled his heart completely, leaving no room for sorrow or regret. Even desire was gone, leaving only this infinite peace. He got to his feet, took the child in his arms and kissed him, and loved him for his own. MĂŠlusine sat watching them, a tiny frown just creasing her forehead and turning down the corners of her rose-petal mouth. But the child knew him, he put his arms willingly about his neck and returned the kiss. 'Hello, Father,' he said. 'We were waiting for you such a long time. Why did you not come for us sooner?' 'I have come for you now, my son,' he said, 'Let it be enough, for God is good.' Together the three of them went up into the world of light to begin a new life. And as they rose into the air, the sea beneath them was as of glass mingled with fire, and a school of golden dolphins leaped in graceful arcs behind them in silent farewell.
Grace Andreacchi was born and raised in New York City but has lived on the far side of the great ocean for many years - sometimes in Paris, sometimes Berlin, and nowadays in London. Works include the novels Give my Heart Ease, which received the New American Writing Award, and Music for Glass Orchestra, and the play Vegetable Medley (New York and Boston). Stories and poetry appear in both on-line and print journals. Her work can be viewed at http://graceandreacchi.com.