Passavanti’s Fantasima

 In Short Fiction, Stories

“If you’d come last week, you could have watched me cut up the baby,” said Anna, who spoke as matter-of-factly as she wrote, with a directness that thrilled Violante Popoli as much as it jarred her. “Pietro gave it to me. I think the mother petitioned him to keep her husband from finding out.”

“That you’d cut his baby up?”

“No, that she’d had it. It wasn’t her husband’s. It was stillborn, though. I think she was one of Isabella’s ladies.” She divided cherry torte generously between two dishes, looked thoughtful, then reached for the cream. “Pietro insisted on burying afterwards, so I couldn’t preserve it. They’d have liked it at the university in Felsina. He never lets me have his criminals before they die, either. He doesn’t approve of vivisection. He says it’s too noisy.”

The fashionable line of Anna’s low-waisted gown had thrilled Violante too, when she had arrived at Anna’s cypress-shaded house less than an hour ago. She had woken as her carriage entered Florens and spent several streets delightedly tracking the clothes of the women she passed, increasingly conscious of being five years behind the fashions and hopelessly dowdy, after so long in the country. Stepping down at Anna’s gloomy gate had cast a momentary chill over Violante’s excitement. Nevertheless, she had braved the imposing door, the thuggish guard in the Duke’s livery, and the barred passage, beyond which lay this sunny courtyard, with its table laid for supper, and a slim, pale girl vivid in crimson washed silk.

Anna’s reference to the university at Felsina, the city where Violante had been born, made Violante lean happily forward in her chair. “Do you know people at the university? I always wanted to go to the anatomy at the carnival, but my parents wouldn’t let me. That was before I was married, of course.”

“I studied the anatomy with Jacopo Barigazzi,” Anna said. “He spent some time here not long ago. We dissected one of Pietro’s criminals.” She poured herself wine, then filled Violante’s cup too. “Is that enough? How is Baldesar? I thought he might bring you. Pietro would have liked to see him again.”

 “Oh no, he’s too busy with his writing. I’ve brought letters from him, though.”

“Last time, he wrote that you had a problem for me. Do you still?”

She looked so young. Violante had known Anna would, because her husband had told her Anna did, and she had expected Anna to be beautiful, because he had told her that too. She had not expected Anna to be her own age, or younger. Anna’s letters were full of recipes and references to exotic ingredients and the sort of information that took years of study to gather. It amazed Violante to discover her correspondent of the past five years was a girl who could have been her sister.

Anna was waiting. Violante composed herself, because Anna also looked serious, and because she had begged for this fortnight in Florens to seek Anna’s advice. That it meant an interlude in Violante’s internment on her husband’s estates was only a happy chance, after all. She met Anna’s blue gaze as openly as she could. “We’re being persecuted by a fantasima. When we go to bed, it scratches at the window and whines at us. If it gets in when we sleep, it tries to smother us and pinches us and pulls our hair. My husband hasn’t slept well for weeks. I’m sure it’s started following me in daylight too. I can’t catch it. Nothing I’ve tried has worked. Can you help?”

She watched anxiously for any change in Anna’s expression, whether scepticism or doubt or even suspicion, but saw only interest. “I haven’t met one of those before,” Anna said. “I’ll have to look it up. Do you still need a new alembic? I need sulphur and natron. We can go to the alchemist on the Via Castello after eating. Or in the morning, if you prefer.”

Violante all but clapped her hands. “Now, if it suits you!”

Anna looked a little surprised. “Really? But don’t you want any more dessert?”

#

The cherries of the torte were the sour visciole sort, wild and rich and laid deliriously over marzipan. Violante asked for the recipe, to which Anna replied that she would have to consult her housekeeper. “We should go out now,” she said, rising and pulling a key on a golden chain over her head as she did so. “Ezio shuts his shop at night.”

Anna went to the barred gate that closed off her courtyard from the front of the house, where there were waiting-rooms and servants and no doubt more guards wearing the Duke’s livery. Violante rose too, hesitating. “Are you allowed–shouldn’t we at least take my footman?”

“Would he be interested? Mine generally isn’t.”

It hadn’t been what Violante meant. It was getting dark and the streets might be dangerous for reasons other than Violante’s little pet; besides, from what Violante’s husband had said, Anna was generally supposed to be under house arrest. No doubt the Duke preferred Anna to stay in the house he had given her. Violante was too eager to see the city not to follow, though, so she tripped down the passage after Anna and bit her lip only when the thuggish guard appeared. “I’m taking Baldesar’s wife to get an alembic, Pasquino,” Anna said. “Tell Simona we liked the cherry thing. Violante would like the recipe.”

“Very good, signora,” said the guard and held the door open for them. “Shall I let the contessa’s woman know?”

The alchemist’s low-lit shop made Violante’s heart leap. While her hostess talked to the alchemist, Violante spun delightedly in a dream of bubbled glassware and maiolica drug jars: ceruse, arsenic, verdigris, quick-silver, everything else she had ever asked Anna to send her from Florens. This was what it meant to live in a city: you could just walk into a shop and buy what you needed to make your cosmetics. You didn’t have to write and wait for weeks and hope what arrived was the right quantity and quality. You could send your maid and be sure she would be back within a morning. It was everything Violante had ever wanted. It was like taking a breath of air after drowning.

She selected an alembic, along with several new crucibles. Anna, who had covered her bright head with a pink silk veil, was sniffing at a splinter of red sandalwood that would make excellent rouge. “Ezio will send everything to my house,” she told Violante, just as Violante began to regret not bringing any of her servants. “He says Jacopo Passavanti mentions fantasimas in a very boring book I don’t have. Pietro might, though. And he wanted to meet you anyway. Shall we go to his house now?”

Violante drew back. “Now? Shouldn’t I have my attendants?”

“Should you? I don’t think he’ll mind.”

And Anna should know. Violante was too enthralled by the noise and crowds and expensive conveniences of Florens to protest. She pressed after Anna over busy cobblestones, longing for at least a glimpse of the court she had always thought she would join. She was not going to make much of a show. She should have put on her blue silk dress, at least, and certainly the rings and gold chains her parents had given her on her wedding day. Perhaps Anna meant only to visit the palazzo and not Pietro da Cignano himself. Perhaps Violante could return and pay the Duke all due respect on her husband’s behalf in the morning.

She hoped so. When her marriage had first been arranged, she had been the youngest daughter of Felsina’s first family, and her husband-to-be had been the right hand of the Duke of Florens, the perfect courtier who went smiling from court to court and smoothed the way for countless treaties. It should have been a match second only to marrying the Duke himself. By the time Violante’s marriage had actually taken place, though, several years later, her husband had resigned his offices and retired to spend his life in literary pursuits on his country estates. Violante had never even seen the walls of Florens.

Now, albeit shorn of all exciting ceremony, she was to see the Duke’s palazzo at last. She followed Anna with unstinting admiration through the front door, where no one paid them any attention whatsoever. The Duke’s wife had died in childbirth before Violante’s marriage, but his court had always been known for its splendour. The square stone tower lowered forbiddingly over the humming piazza and the Duke’s servants and merry well-dressed courtiers crossed and recrossed the encrusted courts and stairs and elaborate high-ceilinged halls without so much as looking twice at Anna or Violante, who paused at the top of the broad stairs for just a moment, her sandy skirts gathered over her arm, and glanced back.

The silly thing’s tail twitched in someone else’s shadow. Even in the city the fantasima followed Violante. It was getting bolder.

She had expected the fantasima to sulk and pout outside the city gates until she left Anna’s house and went back to her husband. She hurried after Anna. “Will the Duke be dining now? Does he hold banquets? Is there dancing?”

Anna’s oblique glance implied the question had never occurred to her. “You should ask Baldesar. He used to live here.” She pushed open a door. “If you wait here, I’ll try to find this book.”

The room was vast and golden, sprinkled with gilt fleurs-de-lys. Violante looked around wide-eyed, then perched at one end of a satin couch. The fantasima down in the painted court preyed on her mind, but only lightly. Although there were enough shadows for the thing to creep in, if it wanted, she was not at all sure it would. Even if it had dared to come all the way into the middle of Florens, the fantasima was a creature of the woods and the wilds. The Duke’s palazzo was far too lively to harbour a fantasima for long.

Violante brushed some mud from her stout brown country shoes, then gave the golden room another wistful glance. If her husband still lived at the Duke’s court, she would have been able to find this book herself, rather than relying on the Duke’s mistress to find it for her. Probably she would have met Anna in person long ago. Anna must have felt freer to visit the Palazzo Ducale after the Duchess’s death. They could have conducted their experiments together, rather than discussing the best way to brew face-washes and paints through letters. This exasperating rustic fantasima would never have troubled Violante at all.

Perhaps Anna would tell Violante what had happened there. Violante knew it was not really his writing that had confined her husband to his estates.

A hidden door opened. Violante leapt up in alarm. “And you must be Baldesar’s contessa,” said the dark man who entered. “How is your cousin Filippo, signora? Well, I hope? What’s the current family project? Another temple?”

He was in his forties, square-cut and bullish, with heavy shoulders and ironic eyes. He leaned against the gleaming wall and regarded Violante in amused appraisal. “I believe we have met,” he added. “You were about five at the time, though. I daresay you won’t remember that.”

Violante recovered her voice in a rush. “I do apologise, your highness. I should have sought an audience with you. I hope you’ll believe me when I say–”

“Of course I believe you, don’t trouble yourself.” Duke Pietro moved to a side table and began pouring wine. He offered a cup to Violante; she nodded gratefully. His curling smile caught her somewhere unexpected, as did the warmth of his hands. “You can seek an audience in the morning. I hope you will.”

His expression said what a pretty girl you are so loudly Violante almost heard it. She blinked. “I have letters for you from my husband,” she offered. “He wishes me to say–”

“All the appropriate nothings, I have no doubt. Spare us. I can imagine what Baldesar wished you to say. Have you got the letters on you?”

“No, your highness.”

“A task for tomorrow, then,” said the Duke agreeably. “I’m sure we can think of something more interesting to talk about tonight.”

He was speaking with his eyes again, unless Violante was very much mistaken. She had spent so long in the country with only her husband for company that she might well have been, but when the Duke took a step towards her she clutched her cup like a shield and said rather fast, “What a beautiful room this is! Those paintings are very fine.”

“I’m glad you think so. Can I convince you to accept my hospitality while you remain in Florens? I should be honoured to offer you an apartment here.”

Violante edged sideways. “You’re very kind, your highness, but–”

“Not at all,” said Duke Pietro and flicked a hot thumb under Violante’s chin. Momentarily she saw calculation behind the warmth; he murmured under his breath, as if to himself, “He did ask me not to, of course,” then smiled into Violante’s surprised upturned face and said aloud, “I wonder what Baldesar told you about me, signora?”

Be careful. He holds grudges. We didn’t part on the best of terms.

“Anna told me you gave her a baby to dissect,” Violante blurted out, and saw his face change.  She fumbled behind herself until she managed to get the door open. Kneeing the Duke seemed unwise and would certainly be too blunt an exit. She backed into the corridor. “Speaking of Anna–”

“I found that book,” said Anna icily behind her. “Hello, Pietro.”

The Duke stepped backwards into the golden room. He looked embarrassed.

Anna seized Violante’s wrist. “Come on.”

 #

Anna hauled Violante out of the Palazzo Ducale at a breathless trot. She did not relax her bruising grip until they were both safely in the piazza, where the linkboys were lighting their torches. “It wasn’t what it looked like,” Violante said, repinning her hair nervously. She stole a sideways glance at Anna, whose mouth was flatter than folded parchment. “I wouldn’t–you won’t write to my–”

“I know what it was. I’ll talk to Pietro later.”

“He just came in. He knew who I was.”

“I met someone who used to visit me when Isabella was alive. She would have told him. Come on. I have some things to do.”

The sky was dark and growing darker, but Florens was a city, so windows flashed starrily alight down every noisy street. Violante tagged after Anna, with unease but growing enthusiasm, glancing back at every nip at her skirts. Before her marriage, she had never been allowed out of her parents’ palazzo without her nurse, when she had been allowed out at all. Her mother had never left the house without at least a maid and a footman and certainly would not have walked anywhere after dark. Florens was wholly fresh and wholly unfamiliar and all the grand loggias and statues and spouting fountains called to Violante to stay and soak every new sight in.

Anna stalked between shadows like an angry fantasima. As at the Palazzo Ducale, no one seemed to notice her pass by, although she should have turned heads, if only because she was the Duke’s imprisoned mistress. It was exhilarating. Anna seemed so completely detached from all the usual rules that Violante felt as if she had stepped out of her carefully regulated existence into a dreamworld where none of them applied. Maybe she had. The Duke’s expression had confirmed what Violante’s husband had already told her, which was that although no one knew it, Anna’s protection was all anyone needed in Florens.

Violante’s only qualm was what had happened at the Palazzo Ducale. Of course dukes were like that sometimes. She couldn’t believe Anna could be sanguine about it, though. She wasn’t sure what else, if anything, to say.

Still, as long as Anna didn’t write to Violante’s husband about it… Violante’s spirits were buoying up again. This really was everything she had dreamed of. She caught up with Anna, who was leaning over a bridge. “Anna, where are we going?”

Down below, the river ran black and swift between unlit pillars. Anna smoothed her palms across the stone wall. “I want to check my spells,” she said remotely. “The river floods in the winter. Pietro built this bridge after the wooden one was swept away.”

“Your… spells?”

The light in Anna’s face did not reflect torchlight. Her hands glowed too. “I can’t do it in the day. People might notice. Pietro would be cross.”

Violante gaped at her. The image of Anna as a fantasima flashed into her mind again, although this time it was not Anna walking through shadows that prompted it. Anna inhabited the city like a spirit, felt rather than seen, maintaining some unclear important work behind the scenes of Florens that only she and her duke knew about. Perhaps Violante’s husband too. He had warned Violante about Anna before she and Violante ever started exchanging letters.

Anna was checking over the stonework with the methodical matter-of-factness with which she discussed dissection or the best recipe for gold lettering. Light flickered in febrile patterns, fluttering and fading in the stone. Entranced, Violante followed Anna’s glittering footsteps across the bridge. “Don’t people notice this?”

“It doesn’t have to be visible. I thought you might like it. Are you tired? I want to check the wall.”

She meant the outside of the wall, which startled Violante, who had expected the city gates to be shut. There was a side-door, though, and Anna let her out without the gatekeepers uttering a word. Possibly they never saw her. Violante rubbed her arms and shivered. It had been a warm evening, but outside the walls the wind swept down the Aemilian Road from the north and stirred up the cicadas screaming in the pine trees. Gravestones rose lumpily from the dark grass alongside the road. Violante was conscious of how many shadows might conceal people or animals or things. She glanced around uneasily.

Anna stepped back from the wall and glanced around too. “The last time I talked to Baldesar was here,” she remarked. “He was going to tell Isabella’s father she died in childbirth. Then he went to Felsina to marry you, I think. How is he? You never said.”

She spoke conversationally, but Violante shrank back anyway. It occurred to her suddenly that they were alone now, and that she had no way back into the city without Anna. She had some idea of why the Duke had tried to imprison his mistress. Her husband had told her Anna was dangerous.

“He’s very well,” she said, in a voice that was smaller than she meant. “He is.”

“Pietro says country life must be driving him mad. Do you like it?”

“Of course,” Violante said obediently. The truth–that the space and solitude and her husband’s moody silences had long ago crawled under her skin–rose in her throat; she swallowed it. “I’m very lucky. He’s a very good husband. I couldn’t have married a better man. Though…”

“Though what?”

Violante bit her lip. “I would have liked to live in Florens too. Do you think his highness will ever…? I don’t know what happened. Perhaps it would be better not to live at court. Perhaps just a small house somewhere. Perhaps just to visit. Do you think?”

It was hard to make out Anna’s expression. After a moment, Anna said, “I was sorry when Isabella died. But Pietro wanted to have children. He would have brought up my children in his house as his heirs, but I can’t have children, so he married Isabella. I thought he’d be pleased when she was pregnant.”

“Wasn’t he?” said Violante, lost.

“No,” Anna said. “It wasn’t his child. Shall we deal with your fantasima now?”

Can you?”

“If you want. Passavanti says fantasimas are supposed to be cat-monkey monsters that go around keeping people awake at night. But he thinks they might actually be nightmares brought on by natural causes. If you sleep on the wrong side, all your blood and organs sink to that side and you wake up thinking you’re drowning. I expect that is true sometimes, but I don’t see why a fantasima can’t be both. It’s not really an animal. I expect it’s some sort of spirit. They can be surprisingly easy to attract sometimes. I think they find it interesting when people want what they can’t have. It’s not very careful, is it?”

“What do you mean?”

Anna put her head to one side, then snapped her fingers with a twist of her wrist that summoned up a handful of light. It radiated whitely between her fingers, lighting up grass and gravestones and the sleek black tail slipping into the nearest shadow.

Violante tried out a scream that tapered off at the look Anna gave her. She hugged herself defensively. “It’s very irritating.”

“It does seem to be irritating Baldesar,” Anna said. “Have you been feeding it?”

“Um. Milk, sometimes. It does scratch at the shutters terribly.”

“It probably wants more milk. I’m sure there’s some at my house. Shall we go back and see?”

#

Anna’s thuggish doorkeeper let Anna and Violante in without so much as raising an eyebrow at the fantasima, which traipsed in after them, clutching Violante’s skirt in its tight little paw. They went through the passage. Anna unlocked the inner gate with the key she kept on a chain around her neck and let Violante and the fantasima into the lamplit courtyard. “Sit down,” she said, so Violante sat down like a guilty schoolgirl waiting to be scolded. “Pasquino will bring your pet some milk.”

“It’s not really my pet. It just… turned up. Please don’t tell my husband. I just wanted a reason to visit you.”

Anna looked down at the fantasima, which sat at Violante’s feet with its tail curled under it, turning its head interestedly this way and that. It was much larger than a cat and it groomed the tip of its tail with paws that were more like fingers, although it had sharp cattish teeth and sleek cattish fur. A cat would probably not have obeyed Anna so implicitly, though.

The fantasima yawned. Anna scratched it behind its transparent ears. “Tell him to sleep on his other side. And feed it properly. It must need more than milk with those teeth.”

Violante brightened up. “I thought that. Actually, I think it got at the rabbit warren when we thought a fox did. Do you think it’s safe?”

“I wouldn’t let it nurse your baby,” Anna said. “I don’t think Baldesar would let you do that anyway, though. But it will probably make quite a good guard-dog. We can study it while you’re here. You haven’t told him about the baby yet, have you? He wouldn’t have let you stay in my house if you had.”

Violante sat up straight, then felt her face fill up with colour. “No. I haven’t.”

At her feet, the fantasima rolled on its back and whined to be rubbed on its belly too. Anna bent down and obliged it.

“He will be pleased,” she said. “Maybe you could both come next time. I think Pietro… I’ll talk to Pietro. He can be difficult sometimes. I think Baldesar thought it wouldn’t be a good idea to come back to Florens after Isabella died. Maybe he was right. But you could visit. I think we would both like that.”

Julia August likes history and fantasy, often together. Her short fiction has appeared in The Dark, Unlikely Story’s The Journal of Unlikely Academia, Lightspeed’s Women Destroy Fantasy!, Lackington’s Magazine, Kaleidotrope and elsewhere. She is @JAugust7 on Twitter and j-august on Tumblr. Find out more at juliaaugust.com.

 

Photo by Cobro on Unsplash

Creator Spotlight:

Julia August
Author of “Passavanti’s Fantasima”

 What inspired you to write this story?

 Renaissance werewolves. No, seriously. In the footnotes to G.H. McWilliam’s Penguin translation of Boccaccio’s Decameron I came across Jacopo Passavanti’s description of the ‘fantasima’, which McWilliam rendered ‘werewolf’, as ‘an animal resembling a satyr, or cat monkey, which goes around at night causing distress to people’, and it stuck in my head.

What do you hope readers take from this story?

Enjoyment, mostly. I write to entertain myself and I hope that someone else, somewhere out there, is entertained too.

To give other writers hope, would you mind sharing with us how many edits and/or submissions this story/poem has been through?

Honestly? I would rather not! I wrote this story in 2015 and bounced it through 30-odd slush piles, including a really frustrating number of higher-tier rejections, before it found a home here. Several SF/F publications did turn out to be a bit squeamish about references to anatomical dissection, though, which surprised me.

Recommend something to us! This could be a book, a short story, a video game, a project you’ve heard about, something you’re working on, etc. Anything that has you excited and that you want people to know about.

Boccaccio’s Decameron! It’s a sprawling, hilarious and often filthy collection of short stories set in Florence during the Black Death. I loved it. It sent me on a Renaissance reading kick and inspired a whole bunch of stories involving these characters. I had so much fun.

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