Bird Masks and Leather Butterflies


Wyld FLASH – November 13th 2020

By Russell Hemmell

Distant voices from outside the palace. Sounds of approaching footsteps, squelching around in the mud. They’re coming.

Their features and attire may vary, from casual to posh or even extravagant at times, but their behaviour never does. They’re all loud, rude, uncouth -when not downright obnoxious, like tourists in lands whose cultures they ignore and respect even less. When I’m in a bad mood -which is often the case -I call them intruders. Otherwise, I stick to a more appropriate definition: muttonheads.

That they end in a bad, bad way is not a surprise. I don’t have to do a great deal to make it happen; they’re food-for-worms from the moment they glimpse at the blackened slates of the rooftop.

A man and a woman, this time; but it’s not a romantic escape they’re here for. They’re on the hunt.

“What a place. Look at this iron gate, at its gravures. I bet it gets back to centuries ago,” the man says, removing the chain that keeps it closed and gaining admission to the courtyard. The padlock has been forced and cracked open for a long time, but a chain remains a chain and should be taken more seriously. Why try to prevent access in the first place if there’s no apparent reason?

The woman waves at him as if he were an annoying mosquito. “The villa is not this old. It only looks old because it’s in shambles.”

Her chin rises to indicate the derelict façade. And derelict it is. More than a few sections of the manor have crumbled down under the weight of the inclement weather this region is so infamous for. Fancy colonnades in the outside patio are now just dark stumps in the courtyard. Brittle marbles and broken stones are everywhere.

 Apart from that, she’s dead wrong. Soon, she’ll be dead tout-court.

“The park predates the building,” the man says it with a voice in between factual and cautious.

His eyes wander over the unkempt green expanse that lay behind the wall. If the palace is nested in a crown of willows, the rest is only a featureless ground, where stumps of stones surface here and there. He points to the far-away section, just beside the backyard. “Over there. You see that ancient Celtic cross? It makes me think of the 18th century, or even earlier…”

“Nah. Just the leftover of a party in costume, if you want my opinion. This is what I intend to do when I renovate this ruin.” The woman’s voice has a sarcastic tone. “Who would be such an idiot to build a villa this size without also redoing the external premises?”

An idiot, of course.

One who would also, for example, slam his brand-new palace over an ancient, deconsecrated cemetery without thinking twice. And this has not even been the dumbest thing he has done.

The rusted gate is now wide open like a gaping hole or the Hell’s fiery mouth, and the two plod on the uneven, leaf-covered path. I’m almost anxious to hear what they’ve come for. With their inquisitive attitude, their expensive cameras dangling from their necks, and their refined shoes, they’re a far cry from the usual staple I welcome here. The woman stops just in front of the massive oak door, her feet cracking on the doorstep, whose wood has rotted away for the damp and the incessant rain of New England’s winters. The man follows her up and trips over the misshapen second step.

“Damn!”

“Careful, Jay. If the doorway is in this condition, imagine the rest. I don’t want to leave because you’ve broken your ankle.” The woman keeps the door open with one hand while the other rummages through her bag and produces a torchlight. “Let’s explore the basement first. Then we’ll check if the staircase is good enough to sustain our weight and get upstairs.”

Jay-man doesn’t seem to share his partner’s enthusiasm but obeys.

They step in, the white light of the torch hitting the discoloured walls of the hall and making it look even more dilapidated than it is. The pervasive smell of mould and decaying furniture makes the man’s nose twitch.

“How did you find this place, Celina? I’ve surveyed most of the abandoned properties of this region and found nothing older than the 1870s. Without you taking me here, I would not even-”

“Is it not on the map? Good, because somebody else would have already snapped it up otherwise.” The noise of their footsteps dies for a moment, and a second later an oil lamp lights up, illuminating the premises. “It’s not that old, Jay, I’ve told you already. You wouldn’t find this kind of armchairs and cupboards otherwise.”

One would expect at this point Jay to become more attentive. After all, he had the right intuition when they were outside. This place is ancient, and if the original villa has crumbled down and been built again many times since the 1830s by brain-dead like this woman who learnt nothing from their predecessors’ mistakes and understood even less, the park has remained untouched since the days it was a burial ground for the Natives, back in 1614. The year of tears and sorrow. The year the Great Plague brought over by the white people from the other side of the deep blue sea spread and ravaged and killed. And if the encircling stone wall and the Christian cemetery on the backyard are of more recent conception, they still get back to the 1700s.

But men (and women) never listen to what their guts tell them, even when it makes more sense than their supposedly better-informed brains. I’ve watched it happen so many times over the centuries that it doesn’t surprise me any longer.

“Still, Celina…”

“For God’s sake, man. You’re here to make an inspection of the building and help me negotiate a price with the land authorities. Stick to that!”

Jay shuts up and whatever he thinks about the outburst, he keeps quiet.

He moves around the hall, walking not without difficulty in the middle of toppled chairs and turned-over tea tables, until he stops in front a cupboard whose doors are now a cobweb of shattered glass. Something has attracted his attention. Fishing in between the splinters, he extracts an unusual object that sits among porcelain cups (all in pieces), silver cutlery (half-black for the rust), and old, moth-eaten picture frames: little, dear me.

“You must be kidding–” his voice is almost a whisper. Is he scared? Ah, he’d better be.

“Now what?”

Jay’s fingers gently move over my crumpled leather, whose original white has long darkened with the wear of time and prolonged use. On my long beak, a few red stains of dried-up blood still remain here and there, and they never fail to impress the intruders. He lifts me in the air and shows me to the woman. “You see this?”

“What’s that? A forgotten Halloween’s costume?”

Jay shakes his head and his eyes now are wary. Maybe he’s not a muttonhead, after all, only under the charm of this gold-hungry harpy. Unfortunately for him, weakness never works as an amulet against curses and angry dead. “No, Celina. This is a bird-like mask used by the Plague Doctors back in Modern times. They believed it could fight off the plague’s dangers.”

She remains in silence for a moment. “Do you think is it authentic?”

“I’d think so.” His voice sounds puzzled. “The leather is so smooth, and treated in such an unusual way…”

“What is it doing here?”

“You tell me. You found the place.” Jay makes the gesture of putting me back in the cupboard. “Was the original owner, whoever he or she is, an antiquary?”

I can answer that question. He was not.

Like Celina and Jay, he found me in one of the unearthed graves in the abandoned Christian cemetery and, thinking I had a great value, he gave me a new, cosy home in his cupboard. Since then, the villa has foundered down and got up again, but the cupboard has stayed intact, glass doors apart, and so did I. For a fairly good reason: the Native shaman that made me on request of the White Doctor used the skin of his own daughter, killed by the foreigners’ disease.

‘I want something that can stand the passing of time and the spread of the plague. Something powerful. Something unique. You will make one for me.’

‘You’ll get what you asked for,’ the shaman replied, touching his forehead. ‘The mask will outlive the plague.’

I was carved out of tears vanishing in the winter hail, over the sound of forgotten lullabies, in the moonlight dancing shadow on a dying town. The cinders and embers and ashes of the bonfires of corpses kept me warm and cosy.

I outlived the plague, exactly as the shaman promised.

I outlived the shaman. I outlived the White Doctor, his wife and children, and the whole town of invaders, who suffered and died of the disease they had carried with them. And so did all the others who walked over this burial ground and dared to touch my beak.

“Don’t put it back.” She comes over and snatches me out of his hand. She’s so rude, isn’t she? “If you’re right, it’s worth a fortune. This is not going with the assets for negotiation.” She quickly bags me up and moves to walk upstairs, probably hoping for more exciting discoveries.

Jay must now think the whole story is a foul idea, but he still follows her over the staircase.

One, two, three steps.

At the fourth, the wood gives way with an ominous crack, and the two scream out loud while they fall inside the pit-like opening that lies beyond it.

A narrow, vertical chasm that from the house’s foundations go into the vermin-infested ground, for their new, white bones to rest together with the old ones until all of them crumble down to ashes and cinders. Like a pale butterfly with red-spotted wings, I take my place back to the cupboard, preparing for a new visit.  I already know it is not going to be a long wait.

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Author Bio: Russell Hemmell is French-Italian transplant in Scotland, passionate about astrophysics, history, and Japanese manga. Recent work in Aurealis, Cast of Wonders, Flame Tree Press, The Grievous Angel, and others. SFWA & HWA. Find them online at their blog earthianhivemind.net and on Twitter @SPBianchini.

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