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The grass showed two colors, like a riffled deck of cards. All the early marguerites bobbed in waves, up and down the hills. Each hill had an oak or two, while the wealthier elevations also possessed orchards of apple or plum—bare-branched, but with twigs swollen purple, pregnant with Easter's bloom. Brambles crawled over the fields and on to the single trodden road. Even these brambles wore a charming infant green, and their withy limbs sprawled thornless. The sky was a cool washed blue, spittled with inconsequent clouds.
This landscape was Provence in high morning during the third month of the year. Nothing ill could be said about it, except that mornings had been warmer in spring, and mornings had been a bit drier. But this springtime would doubtless produce warmer and drier mornings in its own time.
So much was of nature. As for the man-made element which completes a landscape, there was available nothing but three roofless huts by the road (each with blue light shining out through the windows, clean as an empty mind) and a trundling green wagon with two young men on the seat, pulled by a black horse.
There was one other presence in the landscape, one which was neither quite artifactual nor quite a part of nature. That was a bundle that lay hidden in the long reeds spawned of a rivulet running between two hills. The bundle consisted of four human bodies, tied together with rope and lying damply dead. They had been there for two weeks, and the thrusting horsetails had grown around them closely, forcing themselves into the linen shirtsleeve, between the wooden button and the hand-darned hole, and along the mutely gaping lips. The bodies were blackish, but since it was only March, there were few flies buzzing.
These blindly ambitious reeds stood to the west of the road, and since the wind was blowing from the east, not even the nodding horse was aware he had passed a green charnel.
This was an impressive horse: not a destrier or battle charger (that close cousin to a plow horse) but a lean, light horse built for speed and cities, built for races down graded boulevards with the vendors all up and down the course selling ypocras and squares of marchpane. It had movement, this horse, as was evident by the way it lifted up its front feet just one razor cut before its back feet overstrode them. It had elegance, as it proclaimed in its clean, glistening throatlatch, its ironic black eye and supple crest. By its lean dished head and serpentine neck-set, one could see the horse carried Arab blood. By its size of bone, and the untrustworthy set of its eye, it was part Barb. It was a tall animal, deep-chested and long of shoulder. It was a horse to produce wagers.
And it seemed not only to be bred for races, but to be in training for them, for it was thin as a twist of black iron, and its head snaked left and right with energy, snapping its poor harness of rope.
But it was not, of course, training for any such thing, for racehorses do not train by pulling wagons.
This wagon, like the knotted-together harness, did not fit the quality of the animal that pulled it. The harness was made up from bits and pieces: some of leather, some twine, some of velvet ribbon. The wagon (theoretically green) had a number of side-slats which had never been painted and were different in length and cut from one another, as well as from the green boards. Along with these went places on the vehicle's high sides and back which offered excellent visibility into the interior. The wagon was nearly empty and made a great deal of noise as its wooden wheels rolled over the earth.
The driver of this rolling drum was as black of hair and eye as his horse, and his skin was burned dark, as though the man had been in the elements all winter. This impression was furthered by his woolen tunic, which was colored too delicate a rose to be a product of the dyer's art. In fact, this color had been produced in the same manner as the wearer's tan. This young man was as thin as his horse, and he, too, possessed some degree of elegance and movement (though not of the sort to cause men to wager money). Like his horse, he was tall but not wide, and like his horse he nodded. But where the animal nodded to his own hooves' rhythm, the driver appeared to nod asleep.
"You know he shouldn't oughta do that." The still younger fellow beside the driver spoke in coarse North Italian. This one's hair was red, knife-trimmed and carefully finger-curled. He wore a dagged jerkin of too many colors to list. He was, if such a thing is possible, thinner than either the horse or the driver beside him. He infused his few words with a degree of rancor impossible for the casual listener to understand, unless the listener first knows that these two travelers were really close friends, who had spent too much time in close company with one another.
The driver of the wagon sat blinking for a moment, as though he were translating his companion's words from a foreign language. His eyes were fixed glassily on the gelding's swishing croup. He was thinking in a passive and random fashion about goats.
At last he answered. "It doesn't matter, Gaspare. The worst he will do is unravel the ribbons, and then I can tie them up again." The black horse chose this moment to give a particularly doglike shake, which freed the singletree end of a length of rope and sent it snapping over his back. At this sudden attack he bolted forward, and his passengers skidded into the hard back of the hard wagon seat. Hard.
"Poor Festilligambe," muttered Damiano. "He was never meant to pull a load. And he has little enough to please him these days, lean as he is." The dark young man was suddenly stricken with a desire to gather leaves and twigs for the gelding, although he knew quite well that horses don't eat leaves and twigs.
When one's companion smarts under a weight of self-pity, it is not a good idea to send one's condolence in other directions. It does not promote the peace.
"Poor Festilligambe!" hiccoughed Gaspare. "Festilligambe? He alone among us ..." Emotion choked the boy, and his face grew as red as his hair. "If I could live on the grass by the road, I'd have no more complaints."
Gaspare's face was singular in its parts. His nose had an aquiline height of bridge and narrowness along its length which any man of birth might have been proud to call his own. His eyes were large and soulful and his complexion was milk and (more usually) roses. His mouth was mobile.
Yet in all these features there was no harmony, but rather constant war, for the nose was too long and sharp for the shape of his face and the eyes were too big for anyone's face, and his mouth—well, since it was never without a word, a twitch or a grimace, it was very hard to say anything about Gaspare's mouth.
He was just fourteen, and he hadn't had a good dinner in far too long.
"Nebuchadnezzar did," replied the dark youth, referring to the possibility of living on grass. His voice was distant, his less ambitious but more proportionate features almost slack. "Or it is said that he did. But I don't recall that he was happy eating grass."
Gaspare swelled. "I'm not happy, eating nothing!" Out of sulks he yanked a lock of hair that tumbled over his right ear. The spit curl went limp. His finger coiled it again, tighter. The boy's head looked heavy, as will a round child-face that has grown too thin over its bones. Both his leanness and the dandified clothing he affected made Gaspare appear older than he was. Consequently his tempers seemed more scandalous.
Damiano lifted one eyebrow. His form was also drawn out by fortune. In fact, he looked almost consumptive, with his face reduced to dark eyes he could hardly hold open and a red mouth that yawned. "Hein? My friend, I'm sorry. I would like to eat, too. But don't begrudge the horse his horseness; if he had to eat bread we'd have been carrying our goods on our backs all the way from the Piedmont."
Gaspare could say nothing to this, and so was made even unhappier.
Even in March, the warmth of noonday made wool itchy. Young Gaspare scraped his bottom against the seat, first right, then left. He was an unusually sensitive boy, both in spirit and in skin, and since he was also an unusually poor one, his sensitivities were an affliction to him.
"Surely in such lovely countryside, we'll find a town soon," said Damiano, though the forced heartiness of his reply betrayed a lack of skill at lying. "Or perhaps an abbey, where we may be fed without having to put on a show."
"Or a rich penitent on pilgrimage," Gaspare continued for him. "... strewing gold coins. Or a road leading up to heaven, white as milk, with angels beside it ranked like poplar trees—angels playing flageolets and cornemuse, but the angels will be made of cake, of course, and the pipes all of breadsticks, and at the top of the road will be a piazza paved with bricks of sweet cakes, and a gate of crystallized honey.
"By the gate will stand Saint Pietro, dressed like a serving man, with a napkin over one arm and a wine cup in each hand, bowing and smiling. He will not stop us, but will thrust a cup lovingly into our hands. Then the sky will be all around us, floating with white-clothed banquet tables like so many clouds, and piled on each of them olives, puddings, pies, sweet and peppered frumenties ..."
"I despise frumenties," murmured the driver, rousing a bit. The black gelding had maneuvered the wagon so far to the left of the road that his hooves scythed the bright and turgid grasses, and now he reached down for them in full rebellion. Damiano's eyes stayed open long enough for him to pull the reins right.
They were strange, those eyes of Damiano. They were dark and soft and heavily feathered, and in all ways what one desired and expected in a Latin eye. They were the sort of eye which is obviously created to house mysteries, and yet their only mystery was that they seemed to hide no mysteries at all, no more than the dark, soft eyes of a cow at graze. When Gaspare looked deeply into Damiano's eyes (as happened most frequently when Gaspare was angry) he sometimes had the fantasy that he was looking straight through the man and at an empty sky behind. At those times the little hairs stood up on Gaspare's arms.
Gaspare's own pale green eyes flashed. "Well, do not be alarmed, musician, for I don't think you're about to be offered frumenty. Nor olives, nor breads, nor roast pork, nor wine, nor ..."
"Do be quiet," sighed the other, his loose shoulders slumping in exaggerated, Italian fashion. "This kind of talk doesn't help. If you could think of something constructive to do about it ..."
Gaspare set his jaw, watching the last of the three ruined huts pass behind the wagon and be gone. "I have thought of something constructive. I told you, we should eat what God has put in our path."
The weary black eyes lit with amusement. "God sent that wether on to our road? Might He not also have sent the shepherd to follow? In which case our skins might have been stretched over a door alongside the sheepskin."
"We saw no shepherd," spat Gaspare.
Damiano nodded. "Ah, true. But then we killed no sheep!" He spoke with a certain finality, as though his words had proven a point, but there was something in his words which said also that he did not care.
Gaspare's expressive eyes rolled. (He, too, was Italian.) "I wasn't even talking about the sheep, musician. Nothing to get us in trouble with the peasants. I meant hares and rabbits. Birds. The wild boar ..." Damiano peered sidelong. "Have you ever seen a wild boar, Gaspare?"
The redhead responded with an equivocal gesture. "Not ... close up. You?"
Damiano shook his head, sending his own black mane flying. His hair was so long and disordered it was almost too heavy to curl. "I don't think so. Though I'm not sure how it would differ from a domestic boar." With one hand he swept the hair back from his face, in a gesture that also had the purpose (vestigial, by this time) of throwing back the huge sleeves of a gown of fashion.
"But, my friend, how have I ever stopped you from availing yourself of these foods? Have I hidden your knife, perhaps, or prevented you from setting a snare? Have I by word or deed attempted to discourage you ...?"
Gaspare broke in. "I can't do it ... when you won't." Nothing about his colleague bothered him half so much as Damiano's educated vocabulary and poetical syntax. These mannerisms struck Gaspare like so many arrows, and he never doubted that Damiano used them that way to keep Gaspare (guttersnipe that he was) in his place. Gaspare would certainly have used such words in that fashion, if he'd known them. Yet at the same time the boy was as proud of Damiano's learning as if it had been his own.
Gaspare's unspoken respect for his partner bordered on religious reverence, and he lived under a fear that someday Damiano would discover that. This thought was insupportable to the haughty urchin.
Damiano, of course, had known Gaspare's real feelings since the beginning of their partnership. But that knowledge didn't make the boy any easier to take. The musician looked away, resting his gaze upon the purple horizon. He didn't like quarrels. He didn't have Gaspare's energy to spend on them. "I don't know how to set a snare, Gaspare," he mumbled, and let the breezes of Provence wind through his vacant mind.
The boy snorted. "But would you set one if I showed you how? Would you pluck a lark, or clean a rabbit, or even eat one if I cooked it for you?" He forestalled his friend's slow headshake. "No, of course you wouldn't. Well, that's why I can't, either—or I'll be a bloodstained shambles-man in my own eyes. And so we'll both starve to death."
Damiano gently corrected the horse. He yawned, partly because of the sun through a woolen shirt, and partly because discussions like this exhausted him. He wished there were some way he could communicate to Gaspare how like a blind man he felt, or perhaps like one who could not remember his own name. Not that Damiano was blind (only nearsighted), and not that he had forgotten anything. But he had been a witch and now was one no longer, and that was more than enough. Surely if the boy understood ...
But all he could bring himself to say was: "Please, Gaspare. I get so tired."
His lack of response brought the flush stronger into Gaspare's face. "We will starve, and it will be all your fault!" he shouted, in an effort to be as unfair as possible.
Damiano did not look at him.
Gaspare's color went from red to white with sheer rage. That he should have to follow this lifeless stick from place to place like a dog, dependent upon him for music (which was both Gaspare's living and his life), for companionship, and even for language (for Gaspare spoke nothing but Italian) ... it was crushing, insupportable. Tears leaked out of Gaspare's eyes.
But tears were not Gaspare's most natural mode of expression. Convulsively he grabbed Damiano's arm and drew it to him. With a canine growl he sank his teeth into it.
Damiano stood up in the seat howling. Gaspare tasted blood but he did not let go, no more than any furious terrier, not until the wooden handle of the horsewhip came crashing down on his head and shoulders.
Damiano then threw himself down from the seat of the moving wagon, clutching his bleeding arm and dancing over the shoulder of the road. The gelding pattered to a halt and turned its elegant, snake-like head.
Above, on the high wooden seat, young Gaspare sat, red as a boiled crab, and puffing like a bellows.
Damiano stared, slack-jawed, at him. "You bit me!" He repeated it twice, wonderingly. "Why?"
Suddenly Gaspare was all composure, and he knew the answer to that question as he spoke it. "I wanted to see if you were still alive at all. You don't act like it, you know, except when you play the lute. I thought maybe you died last winter, during the battle of San Gabriele, and had not yet noticed.
"A man gets tired," Gaspare concluded, "of talking with the dead."
Still gaping, Damiano pulled his woolen sleeve up. "Mother of God," he whispered, staring at the neat oval of broken skin, where stripes of crimson were welling over the bronze. "You have bitten me like you were a dog! Worse, for no dog has ever bitten me." His head went from side to side in shocked, old-womanish gestures, and his eyes on the wound were very large.
Gaspare sat very tall on the wagon seat. The yellow and green of his dagged jerkin outlined the ribs over his emotion-puffed chest. "Best work I've done in weeks," he stated. "Should have seen yourself hop."
Excerpted from Damiano's Lute by R.A. MacAvoy. Copyright © 1984 R.A. MacAvoy. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted May 9, 2010
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