By Ty Johnston
The moon-faced clown in white stabs out with his knife, the blade sinking into the other man’s stomach. The victim tumbles before a backdrop of a medieval village, his feet slipping beneath to send him to the floor next to a woman already dead.
The clown turns to face me, his rat-like nose and protruding ears adding to his fierce visage. “La Commedia e finita!”
Silence rules for a long moment, then there is an inhaling of breath from three thousand individuals including myself. The lights flare bright again, now with the scarlet curtain lowered upon the stage of the Teatro Dal Verme. Above and before me are lined the actors, their faces bright over the footlights.
And am suddenly on my feet, my hands clapping together at the joy and sheer genius of the performance.
The thousands join me, their smackings of flesh and their shouts drowning out all other sound. It is a grand salute we give the fine opera players.
The four principals, the clown and two other men and the woman, bow before us and I can see the tears in their eyes. They have pulled off the performance of a lifetime, and they know. More importantly, the crowd knows. As do I.
The skin of my hands is not quite stinging when I feel a touch at my shoulder. I turn slowly to find the mustachioed face of the hefty Ruggero Leoncavallo smiling at me, his lips spread wide to show all his teeth.
“It will be a hit, as the Americans say, will it not?” he asks of me.
I clasp Ruggero by the hand and realize the performers are not the only ones shedding tears. Streams now cascade down my cheeks. “It will be more than a hit,” I say, pumping his hand up and down. “It will be a masterpiece, the finest in the verismo tradition.”
I would not have thought it possible, but Ruggero’s grin grows. I briefly wonder if it will split his head in two halves.
He waves a hand about us as the audience slowly quiets, the performers on stage collecting flowers thrown at them from a happy throng. “This is all because of you, Alick,” he says to me. “Without your perseverance, none of this would have been possible.”
In mock shame, I lower the lids of my eyes.
When I look up again, Leoncavallo has moved on. A gathering of gentlemen in black tuxedos has gathered about him, some shaking his hand and a few being so informal as to slap him on the shoulder. A band of women in opulent finery rings the group, some impatiently waiting for husbands, while others seek their turn to offer thanks and congratulations to the grand composer of “Pagliacci.”
As I stare about the gilded framework of the theater and the rows of cushioned chairs behind me, I think to myself that such an opera could only be written in Europe, specifically in Italy. The French have their way, but they cannot capture the depths of blackness the Italians enjoy. The Prussians too can be quite dark, but are stoic in their gloom.
My thoughts remain such for some time until the gas lights are turned down, the players have slipped off the stage, and the beau monde is trickling its ways out the doors to the cobbled stones of the Via San Giovanni sul Muro beyond. Soon Ruggero has escaped the grasping, gloved hands of the wealthy and the soft kisses of the performers. He comes to me, as I knew he would. I am still standing before my seat in the center of the front row.
The Italian grips my hand once more as he presents himself. “It is good to see you again, Alick, especially on this night of all nights. I feared you would not be here for the opening performance.”
I smile. “I would not have missed it, my friend.”
He turns and motions me toward an aisle. “Come, we will celebrate. I will introduce you to the cast, and you can tell me of your latest trip to America.”
I wave for him to lead the way, and I follow with my slight limp. “There is not much to tell,” I say. “I did not find in those lands what I seek most.”
“No sign of God,” Ruggero says to me, now a smile of his own across his lips.
I sigh as we stroll toward one of the exits. “No sign of holiness,” I correct. “Only another land of superstitions and mystic nonsense.”
“So then, the red men were of no aid to you?”
“Red, white, it makes little difference,” I say as we exit the theater’s main chamber and enter the outer rooms still filled with rich men smoking cigars and rich women sniping at one another like little birds. “There is no sign of the transcendental in this day and age.”
A short carriage ride later I find myself ensconced within one of the many smoky cafes of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. Sipping at the white wine purchased for me by Ruggero, I take in the wonder of one of Milan’s most recent additions. From the open front of the café I spy above us the night sky and its glow of stars through the roof of arching glass and iron beams. Only in Europe. Only in Milan.
It is late, nearly midnight, though a few patrons continue to file along the double arcade of the galleria. Many of them, I notice, are romantic couples taking in the sights. I smile when I see these young lovers.
My thoughts are intruded upon when a broad-faced young man flushed with wine and good spirits plops down in a seat next to me. My table had been empty other than myself, Ruggero having plodded across the room in a near-drunken stupor some time earlier, and I had appreciated my solitude. My most recent plans have come to nothing, and I need time to myself to think.
“You are a Jew,” the young man says as he leans toward me.
I nod. “I was raised in the Hebrew.”
“But no longer?”
“I … turned my life to the Lord our Christ some years ago.”
He grins and reaches for a half-empty glass of some sort of alcoholic beverage. He tosses it back with the casualness only found in the young Italians.
“Where is your place of birth?” he asks.
His eyes flare. “The Ottomans,” he says. “Surely no safe haven.”
The answers to his concerns are more than he need know, and more than he would believe. I turn the conversation.
“Why such interest in my parentage?”
The broad-faced man smiles and straightens in his wrinkled brown suit. “I, too, am a Jew. My family is from Tuscany.”
It dawns on me the identity of this young man. Ruggero has told me of him. “Mario Ancona.”
His smile broadens. “Yes, it is I.”
“You were Silvio, the young man stabbed to death.”
His head nods up and down as he glances about the table, his roaming eyes seeking another drink. There is none to be found. I offer my glass and he takes it with no compunction.
“Signor Leoncavallo tells stories of you,” Mario says, returning my empty glass to the table. “He says you are a sorceror.”
My eyes narrow in suspicion. I do not appreciate others being cognizant of my history. What little Ruggero knows, or believes he knows, is only due to our friendship. I have kept the truth from him, as I keep it from all.
“Is this true?” Mario asks.
I smile and allow my eyes to open wider. “I am merely a student of the esoteric. I seek … holiness where I can.”
The young man chuckles. “It is why I asked about your being a Jew. I thought you might be a Kabbalist.”
My lips return his laughter. Then, I lie, partly. “I have studied Talmud and Torah, but I leave the more exotic elements to true sages.”
“It is a shame,” he says. “I was hoping you would be able to help me win a little bet some of the cast and I have about the story behind ‘Pagliacci.'”
I am intrigued, though I know Ruggero’s tale. It was I who had suggested nearly a decade earlier he should put it to music. “Do go on,” I say.
Mario leans in close to me again and I smell the reek of alcohol on him. He whispers, “The signor says it is a true tale, one he witnessed as a boy.”
I nod for him to go on.
“Some of us have our doubts,” he says. “We believe he lifted the plot, or at least was influenced by another performance, during his stay in Paris.”
“Whatever can I do to be of help?” I ask.
“You can hold a séance,” Mario says. “If Ruggero’s story is authentic, the dead can verify the truth.”
The tale of “Pagliacci” is a simple one, only two acts preceded by a prologue. It is a performance within a performance, at least at its beginning. The tale is of a traveling band, a commedia troupe, common in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, but having fallen out of fashion during our times. The story begins with the players performing their comical roles before a medieval audience. Meanwhile, a love triangle has been brewing behind the scenes. Eventually, the husband learns the truth and the opera comes to an abrupt end with the man slaying his wife and her lover. The true audience, watching from the seats of the theater, is left with the unnerving feeling that what they have just witnessed is real. That, the daunting awareness, is the true brilliance and accomplishment of “Pagliacci.”
This is why I am initially intrigued by Signor Ancona’s proposal, despite his drunken awkwardness. There is also my own absorption in Ruggero’s tale; I am curious as to whether it is true. While years earlier he had told me of the murders, I have never had reason to doubt him.
I must know. Such a story, such a tremendous story, needs to be true.
Which is why the following evening I gather with Signors Ancona and Leoncavallo and two other members of the “Pagliacci” cast, the burly Frenchman Victor Maurel who plays Tonio, and the dark-haired Austrian beauty Adelina Stehle, who portrays the unfortunate wife, Nedda.
Near midnight the five of us retire to a second-floor apartment above the Via Moscova. Ruggero has managed to rent the room for our purposes. It is a simple room, furnished with worn padded chairs surrounding an oval table. There are only two exits, one to the outer hall and the other to a room for our toiletry.
We waste no time. Victor has brought with him a silvered ball the size of a small pumpkin. He places it on a brocade cloth of lavender in the center of the table.
“This will be your crystal ball,” the opera singer explains to me. “My apologies for not procuring the true item, but this one was available among our props.”
I remove my jacket and sit, staring into the pearly luster. My face is reflected back at me. I grin. Despite my age, I still look a man of forty. My dark, graying hair holds the same sheen it bore long before any of the others in this room were born.
I nod to Victor. “You have done well.”
He nods his head solemnly.
“Mario, the lights, please,” I say.
The young man drifts across the room to twist the lever that lowers the flames of the gas lamps placed in the walls. We sink into a dimness like that of early eve.
“Please, be seated.”
The others take to their chairs, the four of them forming an arc before me with the ball between us. Three of them appear excited, their faces full of nervous smiles and eyes aglow in the shade of the room. Ruggero is the only one who seems agitated, his face long and blank beneath his thick mustache, his hands pale on the table.
“May I begin?” I ask.
All heads nod in silence.
“Very well.” I turn to Leoncavallo. “The true name of your clown, if you please.”
He hesitates, his eyes shifting from one person to another before stopping on me. “Bruttio,” he says, his voice wavering.
“You are sure?”
“Yes, yes. Bruttio.”
I close my eyes and place my hands out before me, the palms facing up. I breathe in slowly and allow my mind to expand, to reach beyond this pale flesh my spirit calls home. I drift, my inner eye searching and searching. My other senses, some unknown to lesser men, stretch beyond their horizons.
There is a gentle cough.
I lift my lids to stare at Frau Stehle.
“Are we supposed to hold hands?” she asks.
I smile. “That will not be necessary.”
“I went to a séance in New York a few years ago and the spiritualist had us hold hands.”
My smile remains, but only on my lips. “My…gifts…work differently than those of most mediums.”
Adelina glances about at the others, her gaze apprehensive. I need to calm their fears. “If it pleases, the rest of you may join hands. I, however, will need to remain unfettered.”
This seems to allay their dread, their cowardice. The four look at one another, then grip one another by fingers and wrists.
I shut my eyes once more.
I allow my essence to flow with the spirit world. I reach out, somewhat blindly, my inner voice asking, seeking, “Bruttio. Bruttio.”
Silence greets me.
I expand myself, searching beyond the physical. “Bruttio. Come to me, Bruttio. We have questions.”
We are alone here. There are not even random shades passing nearby.
There is only one reason this Bruttio will not come to me. I snarl and push away from the table, spilling my chair. There are gasps about the room as the others open their eyes and stare at my disgruntled face. I glare at Ruggero, then grab up my coat and storm out of the room.
I am not quite to the stairs leading to the streets below when I hear the door creak open behind me. Looking back, I see Leoncavallo in a rush, darting toward me.
“What has gone wrong?” he asks.
My glare continues as my lips curl back. “You have lied to me, to all of us.”
He steps away from me, surprise on his face.
“Do not deny it,” I say. “There is no Bruttio. If you witnessed such a crime, the murderer’s name is another.”
Ruggero flattens a hand against his chest. In a low voice, he asks, “How did you know?”
He glances back toward the room, but no one else is brave enough to seek us.
“I did not mean to lie,” he says, looking back to me. “It seemed to improve the tale, to add to its element of darkness.”
“That it does,” I say, “but you have built your house on a deck of lies. Now, instead, it cheapens your little play. If word of this should reach the general audience, your curtains will lower for the final time within a week.”
Fret and trepidation spread across his visage. His hands shake. His eyes go red. “Alick, please, you won’t tell, will you?”
I shake my head. “Of course not. But what will the others think when I do not return to the séance?”
Ruggero glances back at the door again. “Please, won’t you return?”
“And do what?” I ask. “There is no Bruttio. There is no truth to divine here.”
“Just put on a little show,” he pleads. “A little flash powder. A little smoke.”
I grin, but it is not to show mirth. “I am no stage magician.”
He wrings his hands together, causing their pale flesh to sharpen red. His lips shudder. Ruggero, I believe, is on the point of a breakdown of sorts.
An idea dawns upon me. I will help him with his little breakdown, and I will teach him a lesson. Lying is a sin before God, but it is one that can be corrected with penance and atonement. I, however, do not have God’s luxuries. A lie aimed at me is a sin against me, a debt that can never be paid in Heaven or Hell.
I wave a hand toward the door. “Return. I will follow.”
Ruggero’s eyes light up. “Really?”
“I will…put something together, a trick up my sleeve.”
He dashes back through the door, and as promised, I follow behind. The fool does not realize what is in store for him. It is unfortunate the same fate will fall upon the others, but they are present and such things cannot be helped.
Inside the room again, I find the other three have not moved. All are still seated around the table, the lights still dimmed.
Ruggero wastes no time dropping back into his chair. He tells another lie. “It is all settled now,” he says. “Alick was simply having difficulty reaching the spirit world, but now he has a clearer head.”
I allow another smile, one usually only seen by men about to die. Then I return to my seat and glance from one person to another. I see fear in their eyes, fear of the unknown. Good. Soon they will learn to fear the known.
“You need not hold hands,” I say, “but prepare yourselves. You are about to learn the truth behind your deepest fears.”
Eyes flare wide throughout our circle, but before any voice can protest I pass my hands above the ball at the center of our table.
A smoky circle the color of pine needles begins to form in the air between us. I pass my hands around the globe, then I chuckle.
All eyes are upon the floating orb of pale green.
Victor Maurel is the first to react. He squeals like a rodent, then his eyes dip and he slumps unconscious in his chair. Overall, an unsatisfying performance.
The next to break the group’s concentration is Frau Stehle. She screams and shoves away from the table, overturning her chair as she scrambles away from us. She continues to scream, her tone pitched high, as she begins tearing at her eyes with her fingers. Blood pours forth as she bolts for the door and leaves us.
The chaos continues.
Ancona shouts, “Mother! Mother!” His eyes are off the smoky glow now, his vision pinned to a dark corner of the ceiling. For a moment his body shivers and his jaw hangs open as he sees the truest terror his mind can know, then he too pushes away from us. He falls to the ground in a heap, then moments later he crawls to a corner where he rolls himself into a ball. He lies there whimpering, drool sliding from the corners of his mouth.
I am all smiles at this point. The show is better than I had expected.
I turn my attentions to my old friend Ruggero.
He sits still, his eyes focused straight ahead. His face is filled less with fear than with something approaching awe. I have no knowledge of what he sees, only that I have opened a door allowing his mind to witness his deepest fears. He slowly turns his glazed look upon myself. “Simon,” he says.
How could he know? What otherworldly forces have revealed this to him?
“What did you say?” I ask of him, the smile gone from my lips.
“You are the Magus,” Ruggero says with a voice from the grave, flat and full of dirt. “You are the cursed one whom neither Lucifer nor God will touch.”
Anger gets the best of me. I lash out, slapping him hard enough to turn his cheeks red. “Who are you?” I ask. “Who are you to speak to me thus?”
“I feared you,” he goes on, “but now I know, it is you who is full of fear, Simon Magus.”
I almost lash out again, but I instead slam my hands against the table. Whatever source has revealed this to Ruggero, it is not his doing nor his fault. It is mine. He did not know. I would not even be a player in this game if I had not suggested a decade earlier he should turn his little story into an opera.
I decide not to kill him. I have never allowed another who knows my secrets to live, at least while I had the ability and opportunity to deal with him, but this is different. Ruggero has been a friend. I owe him at least his life. His lie was but a minor indiscretion, and the knowledge he has gained will not be enough to threaten me. Besides, no one would believe him in this day and age of the enlightened.
His mouth opens wide as if to scream, but no words come forth. His tongue falls back into his throat, leaving a gaping hole of black. Then his eyes roll back in his head like orbs of the dead.
“You will never learn,” a voice croaks from that throat. “You have been given nearly two thousand years of opportunities, yet you will not submit your will to God.”
“Enough,” I say.
Ruggero blinks and the color returns to his eyes. His mouth closes and he breathes in shallow gasps. In the corner, Mario ceases his whimperings. Maurel’s unconscious state has turned to full sleep, as his gentle snores testify. I stare down between my legs at the floor beneath the table.
My eyes do not leave my shoes.
“There were visions,” Ruggero says, “of you in other times, other places. Were they real? What has happened?”
He is getting too close. I must end this before he says more.
“Not now, Ruggero,” I say. “Not now.”
He slumps back in his seat, his face bewildered, though the curiosity has been knocked out of him. He stares across at the sleeping singer and says no more.
Two days later I am standing on the wooden platform of the Milano Centrale train station, black smoke whirling around me with the stench of burning coal and the throng of morning travelers.
As the sun sparkles above the stone roof of the station, a figure in a brown suit paces toward me through the evaporating morning mist. It is Ruggero. I did not believe I would see him again.
His eyes are downcast as he approaches, his chin sunk between his shoulders. His hands are in his pockets.
Not knowing his true reason for being here, though aware of his cowed demeanor, I decide it is best to speak not in harsh tones. “I am glad you came to see me off, Leoncavallo. I believed you and your troupe would be glad to know of my departure.”
Ruggero looks up slowly, and I see fear still in his eyes. “It is only fitting I see off an old friend.”
I nod. But could we still call one another friends? I think not. One-time friends, perhaps, but Ruggero had gotten too close. He had learned too much. Things could never be the same between us.
His eyes shift to the baggage next to my feet. “Do you know where you are going?”
“London,” I say. “It is time … I started a new life, away from the continent.”
His nervous glance returns to my face. “Is this how it is with you? Every few decades you must begin anew?”
I nod once more. “It is why I travel so often.”
“It is all true, then.”
I sigh. “Ruggero, I do not know all your vision revealed to you, but I am fairly certain most of what you witnessed is true. There is likely much more you do not know, and do not need to know.”
“You really are the Magus, then? The one from the Bible?”
I give my third nod of the morning. “My name is in the Book of Acts.”
“But how can that be?” he asks.
“It’s very simple,” I try to explain. “I was baptized, thus Hell will not have me. But Saint Peter cursed me, and Heaven’s gates are no longer open to me. I cannot die. I have tried, believe me. There has been more than one cold night where death would have been a welcome relief.”
Ruggero is silent then; he does not know what to say. I can surmise he likely feared me before because he believed me to be a sorceror, but now his fear is doubtless much greater.
I lean over and lift one of my bags. It is time for Ruggero to let go, of me and of his fear. “I’m afraid we won’t see one another again,” I say. “I must sever all ties with my past.”
Now, he nods. But he remains silent.
“Goodbye, Ruggero.” I grip him by the shoulder and gently send him on his way.
Without a look back, he shuffles along. I watch his back until he disappears in the crowd, knowing I will miss one of the few friends I have allowed myself over the years.
“Excuse me, signor, may I help you with your luggage?”
I turn to find a young porter in a fine new suit and flat hat.
“Yes, yes you may,” I say, handing him a leather bag.
He takes the case in one hand while his other hand is extended toward me. “May I see your ticket, so as to know where to place your belongings, signor … ?”
He pauses, waiting for a name.
“Crowley,” I say. “The name is Crowley.”
I reach inside a pocket for my ticket.
Ty Johnston has been writing fiction nearly twenty years. Most recently, stories of his have appeared in the anthologies “Deadlines” and “The Return of the Sword.” He has a story upcoming in the anthology “The Infinity Swords.” When not writing or reading, Ty enjoys spending time with his wife, their beagle, and three house rabbits.