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Carnival, the night when the unrestrained appetites of the barrios would come leaping and prancing up the cobbled alleys into the very heart of to the city. The night when the fountains in even the meanest streets would run blood-red with wine, and masked women in diaphanous dominos would flirt with danger under sulphurous lanterns.
Papa Ouedo always leads the dance, with his huge bare feet slapping out a staccato rhythm on the hot stones and his face painted as white as chalk. Behind him, the boys and girls of the samba schools strut and posture – their semi-naked bodies slick with sweat and other effluvia.
On this one night of the year, when the sky is lit by a million shooting stars, and the city by a thousand hissing gas lamps, the dancers will come right into the Piazza del Innocenti, polluting the atmosphere with their raucous music and the acrid aromas of sweat and sex. Like every year since time immemorial, the balconies around the great square are set to be packed with the wealthy and aristocratic citizenry, who have their own traditions of lechery and gluttony to uphold as they celebrate Carnival in the safety of their marble-walled palaces.
When the music was at its hottest and most demanding, a small figure slipped unnoticed through the servants’ door of the noblest of all the noble houses. She was dressed as Columbine, in clinging cloud-grey draperies of the finest silk, and masked in exquisite feathers of black and white through which her eyes shone like blue diamonds. All she knew was that He would be dressed as Harlequin, and He would know her as she knew Him. Her heart pounded with some little fear, as it was dangerous to be out alone on any night, even here in the pampered streets of the uber-wealthy, but tonight it was pure insanity for a gently-bred virgin to be under the faraway sky. She knew this just as surely as she knew her own name, but it very quickly came not to matter. The music and the danger, and the sounds and scents of Carnival filled her blood like the bubbles in her father’s oldest champagne – and she felt alive.
She accepted the loan of a cup to scoop rough red wine from the nearest fountain and felt its thickness caress her throat. She tossed the cup back to a satyr with very prominent male parts and ran off laughing. For the most part, she ignored the plucking hands and caressing fingers, although it did amuse her to permit a kiss here and there – mostly, it must be said, from the blood-red lips of other Columbines.
If there were a hundred more Columbines out there in the streets, there must have been a thousand Harlequins, many of whom called her and stretched out their hands towards her slender form. But she evaded them easily, slipping in and out of the dancers like a monochrome ghost. There were so many that her head spun. So many multicoloured costumes, so many black masks, so many who would have gladly borne her company, but none called to her soul. For a moment her shoulders drooped, but she was of high courage and she plunged into the narrow twisting alleys that led ever downwards to the darkness and danger of the slums that fringed the city like grubby skirts.
As it grew darker she became aware of a subliminal pull that was leading her eastwards towards one of the towered gates in the city wall. When she got there, the gate stood open and the only guard to be seen was leaning on his pike and peering owlishly at the flood of humanity that ebbed and flowed through the portal. She had never ventured beyond the gates of the city but now she knew her way led over the narrow stone bridge that spanned a mile-deep gorge. Out she went, keeping to the centre of the causeway away from the beckoning edge. She felt more than a little envy for those who pranced along the stone parapet but feared that her own vertigo would cause her to cast herself into the abyss should she venture too close to that tempting drop.
Once back on firm ground, her feet took her, unresisting, in the direction of a huge bonfire on which some sort of an animal seemed to be roasting, sending oily smoke up into the blackness overhead. For a moment she felt completely disoriented and her fear seemed to communicate itself to the crowd around the fire, as they turned their smoke-blackened faces towards her and she could hear the sound of their teeth snapping together. A woman swore harshly at the interloper, but Columbine could hear nothing, all she understood was that the speaker’s mouth moved and a gobbet of greenish phlegm landed on the hem of her cobwebby gown.
The very air around her thickened with danger and she knew not whether to run or stay. A group of young women began to move towards her, with malice brightening their faces, and outstretched grasping fingers, and eyes full of contempt for her white softness. At that, even Columbine’s bright courage failed her, and she felt her heart leap to her throat. She was about to pick up her skirts and run for her life when she saw Him. He was wading through the crowd towards her like a fisherman wades the shallows of the river. He was a huge tatterdemalion figure, whose bright silks barely covered a body muscled as an ox and tattooed with strange symbols. She looked into the black lightlessness of his eyes and thought he would not be gentle with her, although she made no resistance when he bent and lifted her high against his chest.
As it turned out, she maligned him. His treatment of her was almost tender and although there was pain it was no more than that which was inevitable. He returned her to her father’s house just as dawn was lending a sickly yellow light to the eastern sky. As she put her hand on the latch He opened his mouth to speak, but she stopped Him with her small fingers against his lips and went inside.
In the fullness of time, an heir to the great banking house of Grimalka was born and there was rejoicing in the city.
On the night of Carnival, Serena Grimalka sat in a brightly lit window with her son in her arms. There was one more duty for Columbine to accomplish. She scanned the crowd, wondering if he would even come. When the proceedings in the square were at their loudest and most debauched, she saw Him. It was as if the crowds parted and made way for the bulky figure to come and stand by the window. Impelled by who knew what impulse, Serena curtseyed very low before turning the child to face the glass. The baby opened his black eyes and for a long moment he and his father looked at each other. Then the tattered Harlequin turned away. Serena did not ever see Him again, and she settled into a quietly happy marriage with the gentle scholarly cousin her father chose for her.
She never sought to venture out on Carnival night, even though the rhythm of the drums was like a drug in her blood and she knew that half her soul belonged to a tatterdemalion Harlequin with huge dirty hands…
‘Columbine’ from Pulling the Rug iii, a collection of short stories and poems by Jane Jago which is free to download today 10 December 2022.
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