Cupid Painted Blind
Beyond the Walls Anthology 2018 - available to buy here
There is a tangy magic in the air tonight. The gamblers are betting on slimmer odds, the lions and elephant are restless, and the children run amok. A comet is coming, and all can feel it.
Mr Decauda admires the brocade pattern of satyrs playing flutes on the plush red flaps. The tent has not changed in the two decades he has been visiting Carnivale Miribile. Each year the fair spends one night in Little Slitter. He visits just after dusk, pays his sovereign - double the asking price – and gazes upon Mademoiselle Ungula.
The lady overflows her stool and Mr Decauda admires her pillowy form. Normally she is draped in sumptuous velvet, but today her skirts are light, the satin and gauze hems grazing the floor.
He bows slightly - an awkward, shallow movement. Grasping her hand, he rubs his thumb across her knuckles. He does not know where he finds the boldness. Perhaps the comet’s influence. He fancies she blushes, although it could be the oppressive heat of the tent.
Mademoiselle Ungula, a pleasure to see you once again, he says.
You too, sir. Your hand, if you please?
He hesitates, deciding which to give. Left to tell of his character. Right for divination. For twenty years he has given her his left hand. Tonight, he extends his right, opening his palm in front of her, ready to hear his fate. Her eyes widen.
Allowing her to look at his hands has never been easy. They are not elegant - square palms and blunt fingers - earth hands, she once told him. They show that he is practical and likes to learn. He is long-fingered: a lover of detail, well-dressed, quick thinking. His sun finger, being as long as his Jupiter finger, shows his need for the finer things.
At times, she has seen more than he would like. Earth handers can be stubborn and impatient, she told him. His stiff thumb revealed a tendency to be reserved, ruthless and cold. And the rascette high on his wrist, rising to his palm in an arch, suggested a health weakness or oddity.
She runs her finger along his palm. This, she says, is the heart line. Shall I tell you about it?
If you would.
You long for companionship, she says, and the influence of Jupiter shows that you are passionate. She blushes. This three-pronged fork, and this star on the Mount of Venus - these are blessings indeed. You will meet with success in affairs of the heart. This well-marked Satumian line shows your strong sense of duty; you will make an excellent husband. She blushes again. Using a magnifying glass, she examines his hand, tracing a tiny line only she can see. There will be one child – a girl. She looks contemplative, wistful even. Mr Decauda sighs and wishes chiromancy were more than hokum. His heart is heavy when she lets go. She notes his vaguely stooped movements as he exits.
It is late when she closes the tent. She rarely ventures anywhere but her caravan. This night, though, calls to Mademoiselle Ungula like none before. Mr Decauda hovers outside. He does not have a plan except to feast his eyes upon her as long as possible. He follows as she totters her way to the big top, where a celebration is being held in honour of the approaching comet.
Inside, she watches, with envy, the couples twirling. Their ankles - toned and sinewy, plump and pink, thin and bony. Their slippers – satin and decorated, scuffed and Sunday best. She has a feeling in her chest like indigestion but infinitely more empty.
Determined, Mr Decauda seeks her out. He takes her hand and, without thinking, bows low, immediately regretting it. He hastens to smooth down his coat. Nevertheless, he will not let this moment slip from his grasp. He hopes, tonight, to sweep her substantial form into his arms, if only for an insubstantial hour.
Mademoiselle, he says. May I have this dance?
She smiles into her lap but shakes her head.
I’m sorry, sir. I cannot… She trots away through the worn grass outside. Eventually she halts and looks up to the stars. It is clear, could not be a better night to watch a comet.
Tonight, of all nights, Mr Decauda is not ready to give up. He catches up, grasps her elbow and turns her towards him. A gust of wintery wind flutters past her legs, catches in the billowy skirts. He looks down – he is a man after all. At the sight, his eyes are fixed, immovable. She turns to run, but again he halts her.
Mademoiselle, he breathes out.
She looks at the ground, her heart sunken to her legs.
He continues to stare.
She shuffles and will not look at him, so he places a finger under her chin and tilts her head up.
You are… so much more than I ever dreamed. May I? He gestures towards the hems. She does not know how to say no. He falls to his knees, raises her skirt a fraction and resumes staring. She examines his face. He is not repulsed. No, he is... adoring. A tender finger reaches out and strokes her left hoof, admires the sleek ebony toes with their pearly striations. She shivers. Breathing heavily, he reaches for her right, his caress gentle along the groove.
You do not think I am a freak?
You, I, no! You are... magnificent, he says, unfolding himself to a standing position.
You know my secret then, she whispers. Have you one in return?
He nods, removes his coat and untucks his shirt with quivering hands. She is fearful when he begins to unbuckle his belt - she is not that kind of woman. But he turns his back on her and lowers his trousers only two inches.
It is her turn to gasp. At first, she is repulsed, then captivated, as if by a snake charmer’s asp. Serpentine, green and scaled, about half a foot long, it dances before her eyes.
He pulls up his trousers, tucks in his shirt, dons his coat, and smooths it down, before turning to face her. She is heartbroken and ashamed by the tears in his eyes. He looks at her cheeks at her chin at her wrists, anywhere but her fawn eyes. Then turns to walk away.
Wait, she says.
Gasps fill the air. A crowd has gathered, staring at the night sky. Above them, the long-anticipated comet journeys, its train streaming silver magic.
Will you be back? she asks him.
I… You say I will have a wife, and a daughter and live a long and happy life?
Yes. She smiles. Twinkles even. He looks down at her skirts and nods. I will come back, he says. But not in a year. Tomorrow, only hours from now, at dawn. Will you be waiting?
Yes, she breathes out, and admires his slightly hunched walk as he leaves. She lifts her palm up to the heavens, as if to catch the passing comet. Her heart line stretches, lining up with its magnificent tail.